Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Questions are a Burden?

This is a response to this post from a great bloke I know.

"Why do you think you're the only one who is troubled by these questions?" The Nazi peer pressure approach. Funnily enough I don't remember Jesus ever using that one. There are different "right" responses to questioning depending on the questioner's motivation, but surely that isn't ever one of them. The implication is that because you're just one and everyone else is many then you must be wrong. Have you ever seen "Twelve Angry Men"? It takes a special kind of person to stand up against that kind of approach, and hooray for you.

I read Socrates at school - great bloke, and a great example for anyone who likes to ask questions. He said that "the unexamined life is not worth living"; I might not go quite that far, but the same definitely applies to faith. In my experience, people who ask questions and think tend to have a stronger foundation of their faith for when things go bad than people who just nod and say the right things. It should be fairly obvious that a faith that engages both the brain and the emotions is going to stand up better than one which bypasses one or both.

I think it's really important to think and ask questions. I guess that's the kind of person I am. I've certainly had suggestions in the past that maybe I should be more willing to accept certain things that I don't understand. That really rankles - usually it's things that my instinct shies away from and my reason can't defend. It's also been suggested that maybe I should spend less time talking about stuff and more time doing it. Maybe that's another wrong reaction to questioning like the one you describe, but not so severe; or maybe there's some truth in it. I've had to accept that I can learn from other people and don't have to argue everything from first principles (maths degree, can you tell?)

I've also realised that sometimes people like me better if I duck out of an argument. I sometimes wonder if by trying to curb my natural tendency to be argumentative I've gone too far the other way and I'm not being true to myself. Who knows. I still have some fairly non-mainstream opinions, at least relative to my current church and society at large, which must indicate some level of thinking about stuff for myself. Of course there would be those who say that simply because my opinions tend to be more on the fundamentalist side, that in itself shows that I don't think about my faith. They are of course wrong, and very arrogant with it, as the implication is that anyone who thinks hard enough will decide they're right. Richard Dawkins' delusion.

People question for different reasons - to understand and build themselves up, or to destroy and tear down. I've spoken to plenty of people who can't tell the difference - but Jesus could, and it's a very important difference. Jesus had to deal with a lot of destructive questions. Sometimes he gave a direct answer (e.g. Mark 12:18-27), sometimes not (Mark 11:27-33), but I think he always tried to address the underlying question. Not one for beating about the bush, was he? By contrast, in John 3:1-21 and John 4:1-26 he's being questioned by people who want to understand more.

Occasionally I've been thinking about a question and had to stop myself, because I realise that my imperfect understanding of the issue is leading me to choose between two wrong answers. Sometimes I have to accept that God is cleverer than I am; he knows the answer, therefore an answer exists. Faith, ultimately, is a decision to follow God; we make that decision despite not knowing, understanding, or even believing, completely. We have to accept God without knowing all the answers; but that's no excuse for not asking (or answering) the questions.
But as for believing seven impossible things before breakfast ... well, yes. I believe in lots of things that are scientifically impossible. I think that God defines the laws of nature - I don't think he's bound by them in any way. If he is, then Jesus is dead.

One day, I must write up my thoughts on creation, with reference to Newton, Hume, and the difference between Blade Runner and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
But not today - this is too long already.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Mixing Religion and Politics

A while ago I split my blog into three bits, so that each of them would be a bit more consistent in its subject matter. I’ve noticed that with the divide, this particular part seems to be a mix of religion and politics. I was wondering if I should separate it still further - but I’m not going to. Religion and politics – it’s a potent combination.

There was a time when the general consensus was that the two should be kept separate. For too long the Church of England in particular was happy to oblige. It worked hard to make itself irrelevant by staying out of mainstream politics – the things that really matter to people – and only commenting on fringe issues (like Sunday trading). Not for nothing was it known as “The Conservative Party at prayer.”

A lot of other churches did the same. This lead to a stupid situation where Christians who on the surface claimed to believe in the bible nonetheless contrived to ignore most of what it has to say about social issues (i.e. anything that could be classed as “politics”). The problem still besets large parts of America – including a lot of the people who were duped into voting for GW Bush.

But things are changing. Politics and religion are coming closer together. I’m not just thinking about 9/11 or the Middle East; of the six candidates for Channel 4’s most inspiring political figure of 2007, three were described as devout Christians, and a fourth was a Muslim woman. (The other two were career politicians).

The Church of England, too, is getting more involved in politics. I was thrilled to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury speak out against the Iraq war; our own Bishop of Warwick was a lead speaker in the big local anti-war rally; and the Bishop of Liverpool has made some wonderful (political) suggestions on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Best of all is the new Archbishop of York, who always seems to be on the news, and always has something perceptive and Christ-like to say.

I can understand why secular politicians want to keep religion out of their domain. You can’t argue or compromise with someone who knows they are absolutely right because God Himself has told them so. People who don’t like the mixture point to the tea-towel-wearing terrorists of the Middle East. I don’t like what these people stand for either. But separate religion from politics and you lose the likes of Gandhi, Wilberforce, or Martin Luther King. “Keep religion out of politics” is merely the clamour of the secular trying to enforce their values (or lack thereof) on the political sphere to the exclusion of everyone else’s.

I personally think the increasing linking of faith and politics is a good thing for both sides. At best, mixing religion with politics makes our faith more “real” and our politics more principled. At worst … but the problem there is not the mix; it’s simply the wrong kind of religion.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What were you thinking?

At church last week we had a talk from a senior member of the Warwickshire police. Very interesting. For one thing, he asked us to guess how many crimes of various sorts were committed. We guessed, and then he told us the real figures, which were far, far lower than we had guessed. There is a serious perception gap about crime levels here – things are no-where near as bad as people think. Why? Well, partly because when crime happens, it makes the news, and we remember it, and when crime doesn’t happen, we don’t see it and don’t remember it. But I suspect that it’s also a cynical ploy by politicians on all sides to exploit people’s fear of crime.

Sadly, the wrong perception causes its own problems. Overprotective parents won’t let their kids walk to school, and that makes the streets less safe. Fear makes us avoid certain groups and individuals, whose very isolation then makes them more prone to criminality. The climate of fear allows politicians to pass obscene legislation like the SOCPA.

The speaker also made a really good point on why he thought traffic policing was important. He’s had to pass on bad news to family members of murder victims and people who died in road traffic accidents, and in his experience, the trauma felt by the relatives is exactly the same – it makes no difference if the killer did it on purpose or by accident.

One other thing we thought about was how crime could be cut. There are people who think that “zero tolerance policing” and stronger punishments would help. In reality, most crimes are committed by people for whom the threat of any kind of punishment is no deterrent - either because they think they’ll get away with it, or because they simply don’t think before they act. Tougher sentences won’t deter them any more that the sentences we have now. In reality the clamour for tougher sentencing isn’t about crime reduction at all: it’s about the base desire for retribution. That isn’t Jesus’ way.

Next month, coincidentally, we’ve got another speaker talking on “does prison work?” I look forwards to that one – maybe I’ll ask an inflammatory question …