Impressed by Pope’s speech

The Pope's recent visit to the UK seems to have captured the imagination of many people and surprised the British press who found that their negative take on the event was not in tune with all public feeling. So, although it's taken me a while, I wanted to check out what he actually said.

His speech to politicians at Westminster Hall is worth reading. I like it because he puts across the importance of the Christian faith as a contributor to political debate in a very reasonable and reasoned way which I think only people who are unreasonable could reject! Take a few minutes to read it yourself. I read it in the Church Times, or it's here at the BBC.

As my Christian faith develops I find myself increasingly expecting the faith to seem reasonable to others, not just impressive on the basis of (say) experience of miracles. Afer all, since Richard Hooker, the Anglican Church has sought to weave together the authority of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

I also found it interesting that during the Pope's visit those opposed to the “intolerance” of the Roman Catholic Church seem at times to have made themselves look intolerant. (See my earlier article.)

Chile, the Pope, and British Atheism

During his state visit to Britain just now, the Pope has expressed concern that British values and way of life could be eroded harmfully by increasing aggressive atheism. His comments are informed both by his religious beliefs and by his formative childhood experiences in atheist Nazi Germany. So he has authority in what he says. It behoves any host to listen politely to their invited guest, so I wonder what we construe in the vitriolic opposition to his visit by Britons who like to be identified by their membership of humanist organisations. (Are they atheist?). They criticise the behaviour of the Pope, but are we to discern their values from their behaviour also?

I read a moving article* today of the plight of the miners trapped underground long-term in Chile. They see themselves as being on a long shift (much longer than the half-day shift they expected). They've appointed people to particular tasks. One of the miners is now pastor, and part of his responsibility is to lead daily prayers and to prepare sermons. It appears that these are recorded, and published, although I haven't found them online. I presume that the miners are Roman Catholic, as about 90% of the country are, and so part of the Pope's extended flock.

This leads me to my test of whether Britain is aggressively atheist and whether that is harmful to society.

If there were a similar disaster in Britain, would the victims appoint a pastor from among themselves? How do you feel about that? Do you think that any atheists in the group would oppose such an appointment aggressively? If the atheists did act in this way, do you think it would be harmful?

(Comments welcome, as always!) 

* The Week, quoting an article in The Guardian newspaper.

Do physicists exist?

Do physicists exist? It could be old college rivalry between engineers and physicists that makes me ask this, or it could just make a change from tired questions such as “does Stephen Hawking believe in God?” or “does God exist?”

Professor Hawking's latest book (The Grand Design, published by Bantam Press) makes people ask such questions, and wonder whether he, or science, seeks to or can ever prove the existence (or non-existence) of God.

I'm very impressed by an article by Revd Dr Keith Ward in the Church Times (10th September 2010). I'll attempt to summarise it, but you'd be better off just reading it!

He laments Hawking's naive portrayal of the views of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians about creation. Hawking portrays them, Ward writes, as believing that God “lights the blue touch paper” to get the universe started, and that the universe was created just for the sake of human beings. Thus Ward sees that Hawking misses the similarities between traditional theology and modern cosmology.

He writes, “The Christian doctrine of creation is not that God sat about for ages wondering whether or not to create a universe, then one day decided that he would, and started it off. The doctrine of creation, as it is found in Augustine and virtually all other significant theologians, is that the whole of space-time is dependent upon a non-spatio-temporal reality. If God brings time into being, God does not do so in time; for time does not exist until God brings it about. The timeless reality of God timelessly generates the whole of time and space. God can generate many different space-times, and Augustine mentioned this possibility in The City of God.

I like this: God (as far as creation is concerned) is outside time, so limiting God to acting inside time with a “blue touch paper” idea is naive, and also (Ward writes) it doesn't make sense to conceive of Him thinking, wondering, or deciding, and there is much in common therefore between theology and what Hawking writes. In the rest of his article he points out our belief that the universe was brought about intentionally by God – we are not an accident – and that God creates and explains physics (and physicists) and not the other way around!

Revd Dr Keith Ward is a former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. Read his article here.

Rest from Terror

A while ago I picked up the book Terror-rest by Ed Morris. I finally got round to reading it, and it's worth it. He wrote it in the aftermath of the Lockerbie plane crash, 9/11, and 7/7 terror attacks to seek to defuse some of the fear following on from these events. How can people find safety in a world where they fear violence?

The book draws on Psalm 91 in the Bible, seeing its words as an invitation not just to people who would normally read the book, but to all those who would draw protection from God. The book is full of real life examples of people who have found an antidote to fear or violence, including some from the Armed Forces. (Psalm 91 is sometimes described as the Soldier's Psalm.) He looks in depth at each verse of the poem, so technically this is a commentary on Psalm 91 and a very readable one, and he encourages his readers to travel with him through the short book in small bites over a month. He's also set up a web site for comments from readers and more background at

I haven't finished reading the book yet, so I may add to this article. However I'm already impressed by a sense of God's care and presence, and experiencing greater calm!

More details. Buy from Amazon UK.

When the Spirit…?

It seemed too hot today to be inside Lacock Church. I remember nostalgically a very outdoor church building that I enjoyed in Thailand some years ago, where birds flying in and out were very much part of the congregation. Perhaps that is good symbolism for today, when many churches (including Lacock) celebrate Pentecost – the coming of God's spirit.

We listened to a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, where Peter quotes the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

I found myself noticing the word all, and that the text does not say all Jews or all Christians, just all people. I'm sure the early Church was right to get excited at this kind of dramatic preview that took place in Jerusalem, and to gradually recognise the significance of it for their lives and ministry. I remember sharing that excitement in the early days of my own Christian faith particularly; however today I find myself hoping for the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy. What will it look like?! How will it feel?!

It seems to me the church teaching has sometimes been quite possessive of what happened at that event in Jerusalem around two thousand years ago. Today on this hot day the church just seemed too small an enclosure, separating us from the glory outside even as we remembered Jesus' presence with us, and the refreshing breeze was mainly (but not entirely) outdoors.

Losing sight of our interconnectedness

Flicking again through the pages of the April edition of Christian Politics which arrived in my mail, I notice some interesting pieces on communtiy in an article by Lord David Alton.

He speaks firstly of how 'Nelson Mandela promotes the old African belief in Ubuntu: “a person is a person because of other people.” Mandela says: “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: 'Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?' ” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained Ubuntu by saying: “Ubuntu is the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.” ' Perhaps to include European references also, Lord Alton later quotes Jonn Donne: “No man is an island entire of itself.”

This challenges excessively individualistic or self-centred ideologies of personal development, but makes me wonder whether it means that a hermit or a lone survivor of a disaster ceases to be human!

His other fascinating quote is from (American Indian) Chief Seattle, which says some interesting things about both community and environment. Surely he is right to say that to harm the earth is to “heap contempt on its creator.”

“This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know which the white man may one day discover: our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.”

(The Chief Seattle quote comes from Lord Alton's book What Kind of Country. It is a fragment of a speech, probably delivered in 1854 in the context of the sale or surrender of their land. I notice from the internet that there is some controversy over what the Chief actually said, and which translations are best. Various translations seem to locate the words above in quite different places in the speech!)