Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Alpha Course Week 4: “How Can We Have Faith?”

The Vicar returned from his trip abroad to welcome us once more to the Brighton Alpha Course. After a quick recap of the first few weeks’ sessions, he reminded us that today the question is: “How can we have faith?”

He asked us to consider attending the forthcoming residential weekend. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it is that makes this weekend so special; whether it’s simply the overall shared experience itself or the socialising aspect, but he assures us that it truly is a special time and forms a central part of the course. I’m certainly going to go, despite the £90 price tag. [In real time, I went on the Alpha Weekend last week - it’ll come up in the blog after a few more episodes. I have a great deal to say about it - oh and I survived!]

Going back to this week’s question, The Vicar suggested that, after the talk, we might want to ask the helpers in our groups how they arrived at their faith.

As you know by now if you’ve been following this, it’s time for hymns at this point. This time they started with the earworm “Strength Will Rise” Hymn...

..and then went straight into “How Great is Our God”. The title of this hymn does not appear to be a question. It’s a statement: Our God is Great. The lyrics, as ever, were shown on the big screen and here is a sample of them:

He wraps himself in Light, and darkness tries to hide
And trembles at His voice
Trembles at His voice

I would have thought the melody of this song was a kind of parody if I hadn’t heard it sung so earnestly. It’s worth me pointing out here that my opinion on music is well worth dismissing utterly. I used to consider myself a lover of music, to an extent that might surprise you (more on this in the group discussion) but this is not borne out by the evidence. I have found that I actually can’t stand the vast majority of songs that I hear. I either love them with a great passion or I despise them with murderous venom. I appreciate that this attitude may be pathological, so when I summarily declare various hymns “awful” or “indistinguishable from parody” it is really up to you to decide whether this is fair comment or not. In short, I am not liking the hymns on the Alpha course, but the others don’t seem to mind them.

The more I learn about the God that Christians choose to worship, the more difficulty I have understanding why they bother trying to reconcile the murderous, jealous, puppet-master God of old with the supposedly glorious King of goodness and light that they sing about. Perhaps while the songs are sung, it serves to muffle the clamorous, intellectual off-notes that ring out when these incompatible versions of God collide.

The Alpha Course Convert

After the hymns, the congregation sat back down. Their seats, still arranged in circles of 10 or so, were adjusted to face the stage which then was taken to by a chap I will call Leo. As with everybody I try to determine the age of at these meetings, he looked to be in his early thirties. Leo is a maths teacher who only became a Christian 4 years ago, he tells us - after attending an Alpha course.

Judging by the apparent ratio of believers to non-believers on this particular Alpha course, I do find it hard to believe that he attended Alpha as a non-believer and was converted, as he claims he was. I ought to take this at face value however, as I really have only my own incredulity in opposition to it.

I was, therefore, looking at a genuine, real-life Alpha Course convert. I suppose that seeing a living, breathing Alpha convert might make it easier for some people to accept the message of the course, knowing they aren’t the first person to have been influenced by it. You could say it’s a way of getting doubters to drop their guard a little. Oops, there I go again - being cynical! I will try harder to take his claim of being an Alpha-convert at face value.

Leo tells us that his university life consisted of “beer, rugby and girls” and that he even had a red strip dyed into his hair. He was a bit of a lad and to make sure we understood this, he regaled us with a story of how he once tried to chat up a pretty girl in a bar with some godawful line that I have summarily discarded from my memory. I was heartened to hear that this approach failed for him, at first. He persisted and eventually ended up going out with the girl, alas. There was no particular moral to the story, except maybe that attractive girls do eventually go out with persistent, blokey lads. The picture of Leo as a hedonistic tearaway had been adequately painted anyway.

Leo eventually started to become disillusioned with his shallow lifestyle. He felt that something was missing from his life - that there must be something more to it than just the beer and the girls and the rugby. The Alpha course was recommended to him and he decided to give it a whirl. He told us that he actually used to argue against Christianity so he wasn’t expecting to get anything from it.

However, while on the course, he found that he truly “experienced God for the first time”. He came to feel that God had been the thing that had been missing from his life and his sense of there being something more to all this was finally satisfied. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, but by the end of the course, he knew. Something within him had now changed, like he was a new person. At this point he referred to 2 Corinthians 5:17:

“Those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same any more, for the old is gone. A new life has begun!”

Reading from St John’s gospel, Leo told us that those who believe in Jesus become children of God. He said that the “children” analogy pops up a lot in Christianity, when talking about the relationship between mankind and God.

With Christianity, we were told, there comes a point where you know that you either are or are not a Christian. It is not something that you can only partly be. To assist our contemplation of this idea, he asked what it means to be a Christian. Being born in a Christian country does not make you a Christian, he says, because:

“People born in McDonald’s don’t grow up to be hamburgers.”

This funny(ish) analogy also appears on a recording of a previous Alpha Course that I have listened to, featuring a different speaker. This other speaker’s talk also happened to follow the same story arc; the speaker had been a non-believer that attended an Alpha course on a whim and found himself succumbing to the Alpha message.

I wasn’t naive enough to believe that the speakers craft these talks for this specific iteration of the course, but I still felt disillusioned when I heard that very same joke. It’s that feeling where you see a comedian in a local club and think he’s hilarious, but a few months later you see him on television delivering the same joke with that same first-night enthusiasm. You feel slightly cheated, but you also chastise yourself for being surprised. The Alpha speakers deliver their talks as if it is the first time they’ve done so, like pros. It’s hard to criticise public speakers for being professional about it but this is acting; I wonder to what extent the congregation realise they are watching a crafted show, as opposed to a straight-down-the-line sermon. I also wonder if it’s just me that thinks it matters.

I am being too cynical this week. I have already suggested that communal singing helps stifle the mental qualms about the old God and questioned the truth of Leo’s claim to be a genuine product of the Alpha course as if it is just a ploy to lower the guard of the audience. Now I am naively expressing disappointment that the talks are rehearsed and performed many times in order to enhance their impact, as any public speaker would. It’s time I got on with relating the talk to you, unencumbered by my jaundiced view.

The Tripod of Faith

The way Leo thinks of his faith is this: it is a three-legged stool, or a tripod of some kind. Depending on your background, the word “tripod” will evoke a certain image. Cauldrons on the beaches of Troy; a mount for a camera or telescope; or perhaps the terrifying metallic vehicles of our alien overlords, used to hunt down and enslave the human race.

BBC/John Christopher

Each of the tripod legs plays a crucial part in supporting Leo’s faith and each represents a different aspect of it.

Leg 1 - The word of God; The Bible.
Leg 2 - The Works of Jesus.
Leg 3 - The Witness of the Holy Spirit

Leg 1 - The Word of God; The Bible

To illustrate this leg of the tripod, Leo started by telling us that he can prove that he is a maths teacher by showing us a certificate that says so - and he did. He pulled out the very piece of paper that he uses to show employers that he is indeed a teacher. For Christians, he tells us, the equivalent of this certificate is the Bible. You are a a Christian when you can hold up the Bible, say that you follow it and that you believe it is the word of God.

He referred next to Revelation 3:20:

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him and he with me.” (King James Version)

On the projector screen, he brought up this painting:

“The Light of the World - William Holman Hunt”

Leo pointed out that judging by the plant growth by the door, it has never been opened. To make matters worse for Jesus, there is no handle on the outside - it must be opened from within. IF you open the door, he WILL come in.

The other big thing about the Bible, Leo said, is that it tells the most important story of all: that Jesus died and was resurrected. He said that this part of the Bible is so central that if the resurrection didn’t happen “..then everything we’ve been talking about is pointless”. My eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets at this sentence - I don’t think anyone noticed. Furthermore, “we know he died because he rose again” and finally; “if he was dead, buried and rose again, it shows that there’s something after death”.

Being careful not to go on too much about my own thoughts on this and being sure that you, dear reader, can see the problems with those last two statements yourself, I’ll only mention that during the group discussion afterwards, when asked about our thoughts on the talk as a whole, I went straight back to Leo’s “pointless” comment. Was he really saying that it’s only the resurrection of Christ that makes his teachings valid?

Surely, I asked, everyone sitting here would still agree that the sentiment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a laudable one, even if we found out for sure that Jesus did not rise again? Some of them nodded but one said that it was indeed Jesus’ resurrection that made her believe that his teachings were somehow special. I can’t quite express how alarming I find this.

I wonder why a religion whose purported goal is to promote the ethos of doing good unto others would teach that this principle derives its value from its supernatural provenance, rather than from its self-evident desirability as a philosophy. Why not use a simple and powerful tool - reason - to promote the benefits of acting unselfishly? Surely a shared aim of believers and humanists alike is to get mankind to behave more and more with the good of each other in mind? So why say that such ideas would be “pointless” if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Such concepts serve the Church but they do not serve humanity. Anyway, back to the sermon.

In completing his description of the first leg of the faith tripod, Leo spoke of his belief in God’s word that He will give us eternal life (John, 10:28). Specifically he talked about eternal life in heaven. Heaven, he suggested, is a tricky concept to get one’s head around so to illustrate what he means he referred to C.S. Lewis, who said something along the lines of life being the school term with heaven being the holidays. These holidays were themselves like a book in which every chapter is better than the one before. (This is taken from the end of “The Last Battle”, the end of the Narnia saga).

Finally, in relation to the “Word of God” leg of the tripod, faith is about taking God’s promises and daring to believe them.

Leg 2 - The Works of Jesus

Leo again flourished his teaching qualification, saying that this is how we know he is a teacher. This time he added “and I know I am a Christian because of the crucifixion of Jesus” which is one of those phrases that doesn’t make a lot of sense on its own. He went on to explain to us that the key thing that Jesus did was dying for our sins.

This point is mentioned at every opportunity on the Alpha Course. The crucifixion is absolutely central to their faith, of course. The reasons for this were covered in the previous session, but the talks in general are scattered with references to Jesus dying for our sins, God so loving us that he sent his only son to die for us, etc.

In dying for our sins, Leo reminded us, Jesus took upon himself the weight of our sin so that we might be released from it. Thus freed, we are able to have a real relationship with God. Without Jesus’ intervention, this personal, one-to-one relationship would not have been possible. Our sins were like a barrier between us and God, and Jesus has removed that barrier - we are now able to approach God.

Leo said that Jesus’ sacrifice was the ultimate gift, and with most normal gifts there is a catch. But not this one. Yet despite there not being a catch, as such, this gift cost Jesus everything. His own sinless life was like a clean white towel that he wrapped around our sin, taking it away “and that’s amazing”, said Leo. An amazing non sequitur, I thought.

Christ’s gift is “Righteousness, which means a right relationship with God”.

“So, how do we receive this gift?” Leo asked. First, we are told, we need to repent. Then we need to have faith. We all put faith into practise all the time, according to Leo. For instance, he tells us “We all have faith our chair won’t fail - you can’t prove it won’t fail, but chances are it won’t.” You can see plainly that this is just a false analogy. Faith in the structural integrity of chairs is not the same thing as faith in a particular deity.

As an illustration of what faith is, Leo told us the story of the famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin. In the version Leo told us, the great man challenged the audience to sit in his wheelbarrow while he wheeled it across the gorge of Niagara falls. The audience included the Duke of Newcastle, who was one of the many who declined the challenge. When nobody else volunteered, an old lady said that she would be quite happy to be taken across in the wheelbarrow. To the audience’s amazement, she got in, and Blondin took her across and back again. It turned out that this lady was his mother.

Here’s the official Alpha course cartoon version:

That story doesn’t really work, for me. She demonstrated less faith than the audience who had perhaps never even seen the act before. She was no doubt very familiar with her son’s abilities. You could excuse the audience for being cautious and you could see why she might be more trusting. There is no equivalence between the faith shown in this story, and the faith required to believe in the Christian God. Blondin’s mother had a lifetime’s worth of observation backing up her faith. We have no such observations. As with the chair analogy, this tale falls short of validating faith in any particular deity.

Still, it’s a nice little tale, although I did have trouble finding any mention of Blondin’s mother on any website that was not specifically addressing the subject of faith or in some way affiliated with the Alpha Course. Most versions of Blondin’s feats mention his manager rather than his mother, as far as I have found. Feel free to look for yourself: Blondin's Mother references?

Leg 3 - The Witness of the Holy Spirit

On to the third leg of the tripod of faith. As with the first two legs, Leo returns to his teaching qualification, proudly waving his certificate. He then holds his Bible aloft as proof he’s a Christian. This time he adds that he also knows he’s a Christian because of his own personal experience of living as one. You do have to accept the tautologies on the Alpha Course, I’m afraid, as you do with Christianity in general.
Living as a Christian and putting the teachings of Jesus into practise, Leo feels the Holy Spirit working through him, as a real entity. The Holy Spirit, we are assured, can come into our lives and change them for the better. When it comes, the Holy Spirit brings with it the fruits mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Leo found that he wanted more of these qualities, in himself. The Holy Spirit, he finds, seems to slowly mould you into a better person as you put your faith in Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to work with you. It doesn’t happen immediately, it is gradual. In Leo’s experience, he found that he started becoming a little more helpful around the house. And then he noticed that the naughty things he liked doing didn’t seem as desirable any more. He put this down to the effect of the Holy Spirit and of his faith. I noticed a similar change in myself over the years, but I attributed it to the onset of maturity. Maybe we’re both right. The third leg of faith was all about the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit inside you, rather than some kind of logical progression from evidence to knowledge. In Leo’s own words “It’s not just about knowledge”. In conclusion, this talk typified the Alpha Course so far, for me. Remember that the title of this session was “How Can We Have Faith?”? Rather than a real analysis of the question, what we actually got was a sequence of analogies and anecdotes that took our appreciation of faith nowhere it hadn’t been before. It may have served to reinvigorate the Christian faith of many of the congregation, but from the outside it fell short of offering any compelling reason to abandon faithlessness. The fruits of the spirit, for example; all attainable without Yahweh, plus dozens more. In part 2 of this episode, I will solely focus on the group discussions that I have been neglecting on these pages, as it is there that I’m learning the really valuable lessons about what faith means to these lovely people, and what they think it does for them.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Alpha Course - A Quick update

I just thought I’d post to explain what’s happening with the blog/the course at the moment.

George Cruickshank: "The Headache" 1919

Thanks to a ridiculous number of migraine episodes over the last couple weeks, Part 4 of the blog isn’t quite ready yet. Rather than rush it out though, I’m going to do it properly. This weekend would have been the ideal opportunity to get fully up to date, however, it is this very weekend that I am going to be at the Alpha Course residential.

In real life, I have now been to 6 Alpha Course sessions (and taken LOTS of notes) and I am still enjoying them very much indeed. Over the weeks, as I’ve got to know the people in my circle, I’ve grown rather fond of them and I always look forward to our discussions. Although I have not yet come across any argument or evidence that has lessened my atheism, I have gained more of an appreciation for how and why they have arrived at their beliefs. Hopefully they have gained the same appreciation for how I have arrived at mine.

After the residential, I will get on with the blog. I’m very grateful for - and somewhat overwhelmed by - the amount of positive feedback I’ve had from people both in real life and on the internet. It has helped me a great deal, so thank you.

Whilst in thanking mode, I must also thank Tannice Pendegrass from http://campoeticlicense.com/ for her invaluable proofreading, prods and suggestions.

I head off this evening after work and return on Sunday afternoon. No doubt I’ll tweet about it a little while I’m there, so follow me @faithlesseye if you like.

Blog returns next week!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Alpha Course, Week 3: Why Did Jesus Die?

I forgot to remove my chewing gum before I arrived for the third session of The Alpha Course at Brighton’s St Peter’s Church.

I went straight from work this time, which meant I didn’t get a chance to collect a book I’d been handed the previous week. The book is called “Why Trust the Bible?” by Amy Orr-Ewing and it had been lent to me by the lead-helper of the group, with whom I’d shared a lovely apres-Alpha pint of Harvey’s after the first session. He’d dug up the book for me after I declared that their God had some terrible things attributed to him in the Old Testament. In particular, I had referred to God’s instruction that the returning Israelites slaughter every single one of the Canaanites, with no mercy for the women and children. After reading the recommended chapter I felt unsatisfied to put it mildly, and disgusted to put it accurately.

A more detailed account of what I read is appended to the end of this post as it’s not quite in keeping with my main mission here, which is to relate the Alpha Course to you as I experience it.

I’m not usually a chewer of gum, therefore I’m not very well practised at disposing of it. It stuck to my fingers as I tried to drop it into a bin near the food tables. Those who witnessed this did not laugh at me, for which I was grateful. Tonight’s meal consisted of jacket potatoes with a range of fillings. I did not partake. We usually sit and catch up with each other as people drift in over the first 20 minutes or so, which results in those of us that arrive early repeating ourselves quite a bit. Three new people join our group this week (which spices up the group discussion a bit!) but with a few others not showing up, our circle is still 10 strong. We are given enough time to eat the food and then the session begins.

The Alpha Course Residential Weekend

The Vicar was away so we were welcomed by a chap in his early thirties who reminded us about the forthcoming Alpha Weekend. It starts on a Friday evening and goes through until the Sunday lunchtime. It costs £90 for an adult, but a bursary is available for those who cannot afford this. Partners and children are welcome too. At first I thought the weekend might be a step too far for me, but I’ve changed my mind and I’m pretty certain I will go along. It’ll make my account of the course truly complete. I’ve been on a pilgrimage to Lourdes for goodness’ sakes; of course I can handle a little C of E residential in Bracklesham Bay! Part of the weekend includes a group walk down to the beach and do you know what you always find at low tide at Bracklesham? Fossils. Loads of them. How can I resist?

The congregation stood to sing hymns at this point. The words were shown on the large screen and the guitar man sang into his microphone. The first hymn was “Amazing Grace” which is one of those grand old songs I enjoy up until the point I take heed of the words.

As usual, I was one of a tiny number of people that chose not to stand for the hymn. When I look back to the first week, I’m surprised that I thought so seriously about whether to stand or not, as now I feel very comfortable indeed just sitting there. Straight after Amazing Grace, they went into another hymn called “You Alone Can Rescue”. This one features the lyric “You alone can lift us from the grave” which I think is a rather odd sentiment to set to music. Being in a room full of people all singing that sentence made me feel slightly hopeless about the future prospects for mankind, but as ever, I quickly got over that.

For those subscribed by email, for whom the youtube links don’t work, the verses of “You Alone Can Rescue” have a melody almost as generic as it’s possible to imagine, with a chorus seemingly propagated inside the obsidian heart of Simon Cowell.

The Sermon

With the singing complete, we were introduced to our stand-in speaker for the night; a blonde, curly-haired lady with piercing eyes and a generally vibrant demeanour. At a guess I’d say she was in her early thirties. She told us that she would be talking about why Jesus died. I felt comfortable enough to take notes now, as I usually see some of the believers doing so too. I’m glad about this as the talk turned out to be jam-packed with some surprisingly traditional Christianity. This might make for a rather turgid blog entry but my main aim is give you an accurate idea of what these sessions consist of, without clogging it up with my response to everything.

The Cross

I will call her Jay. After Introducing herself, she started by lightheartedly asking us “What do the following people all have in common? Wayne Rooney, Madonna, Elton John, Jennifer Anniston, Naomi Campbell, the Beckhams and the Pope.”
The answer, we are told, is that they all wear the cross. This hung in the air for a moment. Jay wondered if this might be a little strange, these people all wearing what is actually an execution device. Comparing the donning of a crucifix to wearing earrings with electric chairs or gallows on them, she wondered if we might think her a little weird if she were to do this.

She told us that crucifixion was so cruel that even the Romans eventually stopped doing it and asked why the cross has effectively become the logo of the Christian church; its central image. This evening we would look at this question.

A third of the New Testament, she tells us, consists of the Gospels, three of which describe the death of Christ. During communion services they remember the cross and death of Jesus. Significant people, such as world leaders, usually have the content of their lives remembered, but Christ is remembered, according to Jay, for his death. She pondered on what it is about his death that is so very significant and how his death is significant for our own lives. How can a real understanding of his death lead to a revolutionary change in our lives?

Perhaps, she said, we need to ask ourselves this question first:

What is Humanity’s Greatest Need?

According to studies by psychologists, we are told, humans mostly desire security, belonging and purpose. Surely such things can be obtained from our loved ones, she suggests, so where does Jesus come in to it? Well, Jay tells us that the reason we need Jesus is adequately described by Paul “All have sinned and have fallen short in the glory of God”. We have all sinned, every last one of us. Even Jay’s 3 and 5 year old kids are definitely sinners because one blamed the other for a recent spillage of water. Sin!

“We don’t find it easy to admit that we’ve done things wrong, but sin - by definition - is to fall short of the Glory of God.”

To explain this, Jay envisaged a scale of goodness, asking us to imagine people like Stalin and Hitler at the bottom, and Mother Theresa at the top ( Yes, this Mother Theresa ). We would be somewhere in the middle. The ultimate standard is:

“..the Glory of God. That standard is Jesus, the man who do did nothing wrong. Jesus was perfect. It says in the bible he never sinned”.

When we compare ourselves to Jesus, we are obviously below his standard; we’ve all done things wrong.

So why does sin matter? Jay asked. She said there are 4 serious reasons that sin is important. I’ll list them here and then go over what was said about each one:

Sin pollutes.
Sin is powerful.
Sin has a penalty.
Sin makes partition.

Look! they all begin with P - that will help us to remember them! How serendipitous!

Sin Pollutes

Jay informs us that pollution is the “big topic” in the world; how are we going to fix the problem of pollution in the world? Making one of those little hops of logic so common in such sermons, she immediately tells us that it is possible to “pollute our own lives, our own souls”. In Mark 7:20, Jesus himself says:

“What comes out of you is what makes you unclean.”

Jay elucidates by telling us that this means:

“from out of our hearts come evil thoughts; sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly. All of these things come from inside and they make you unclean.”

We are told that committing only one of these sins pollutes our entire soul. There is no room for self-satisfaction if we do not commit all of those sins, as even committing a single one is enough to sully us. We are given an example of finding ourselves in a court of law on charges of theft. Saying: “well I haven’t murdered anybody” will not affect the outcome of your theft trial.

Sin is Powerful

Sin is powerful. According to Jay, Jesus says “We are slaves to sin” and also that it is possible to become addicted to bad temper, arrogance, pride, envy, selfishness, lust, gossip etc. These things can grip our lives.

Sin has a Penalty.

Jay asks us:

“When you read the newspapers, what are the things that make you angry? Cases of child abuse? An old lady being mugged? Something within us rises up and says that’s not fair.. something in our nature cries out for justice - we’ve been made that way, to cry out for justice”

If you recall, last week I expressed incredulity that Christians did not seem to think that a sense of justice was a natural human trait, born of an innate sense of empathy. This was after The Vicar had claimed that Jesus had practically invented the concepts of justice and fairness. In this instance however, the inbuilt human sense of justice is restored by the speaker and directly invoked in support of the point she is making. Would I have noticed this inconsistency if I had not written it down? No.

Jay goes on to say that this is how God sees our sin; with his own natural sense of what is wrong. “He sees how the sin is hurting us and he hates it - he can’t live with it, and because he’s God, he does something about it”.

The Partition Caused by Sin.

In Romans 6:23 it says  “The wages of sin is death”. We are reassured here that the death referred to is not just physical death, (people sin every day, Jay says “and we’re not all dying left, right and centre”) but a spiritual death, a cutting off from God. This barrier between us and God is made by the wrong things we do.

She tells us that when we feel that our earnest prayers are not answered, this is because of the sins we have committed.

As long as we sin, we can’t attain the personal relationship with God that is being offered. I wonder how this relates to the statements of previous weeks, where The Vicar and members of my group spoke of their personal, close relationship with God. They acknowledge that they are sinners, but they also claim to have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. Perhaps they are talking about a subtly different type of personal relationship with him, otherwise this would be a contradiction.

Such contradictions seem to be easily assimilated into the Christian worldview when they are separated by a few days. It’s easy to gloss over the inconsistency between Jay’s statement:

“Christianity promises a living, dynamic, speaking, hearing relationship with God. A level of intimacy with the almighty God which changes everything. But we simply can’t have it while we have this barrier between us and God”

..and the statements made by The Vicar in the first week, where he spoke of his “real” relationship with God; or the members of my circle whose personal relationship with God is almost taken for granted.

We are being sold Jesus as the only way to God one week, and then sinlessness as the way to God the following week. If we are without sin, there is nothing blocking our path to God, so where does Jesus come in? I ask myself. My answer involves original sin, which is the one sin we can’t rid ourselves of. Thank you, God.

Back to the sermon, where, as it happens, Jay is about to tell us exactly where Jesus comes in. Referring back to her earlier question “What is humanity’s greatest need?” she says we have been separated from God and we need something that brings us back. She laughs as she suggests that we might all being feeling a bit depressed about it all right now, but she assures us that we shouldn’t worry, as we’re getting on to the good stuff. The good news is:

“God. Loves. You.”

He doesn’t just leave us, stuck in our sinning ways. He apparently wants a relationship with us and he loves us and he wants to do something about it all. Jay then quoted John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

So, Jay asks, what was the solution? What did God do? She tells us about the idea of the self-substitution of God:

“Basically, God came to Earth in the form of his son, Jesus Christ, to die for you and to die for me.”

She then quotes 1 Peter 2:24 “By his wounds you have been healed” and asks what this means. To tell us what it means, she relates a story. This is the tale of a Polish priest who, while incarcerated at a German concentration camp, substituted himself in place of a man who was being taken away for execution. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe . Jay tells us 150,000 people attended a mass in his honour in St Peter’s Square in 1982. This turnout was apparently “A victory like that won by our lord Jesus Christ” according to the Pope himself.

Jay concedes that this is not a perfect analogy of what Jesus has done for us, but Jesus has basically taken our place and died on the cross in our stead. If it isn’t a perfect analogy then why use it at all, I wondered, other than as an opportunity to tell a story about a selfless Christian; showing us how great Christians are.

Inserting an inaccurate analogy here seems like little more than product placement to me. At a point where the audience were primed and ready for an explanation of what God did when faced with the problem of our sin, we are diverted along the route of a story which does not answer this question, but gives us something that is suggestive of the sort of concepts that the answer might include.

The use of questions with no answer, or answers that don’t quite fit the question provides many opportunities for “mystery” to be involved and for the insertion of more tales of the goodness of Christians. It seems like a deliberate tactic. The sermon has asked questions, and offered answers but not in any attempt to further knowledge or to try to pin down a logical route to understanding. The questions are a framework upon which a series of favourable images of Christianity can be draped. You feel like you are going to have knowledge revealed, but you are given only a set of oblique references and propaganda. I digress.

Joachim Beaukelaer - Christ on the Cross (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sacrifice on the Cross

The crucifixion, we are told, also allowed Jesus to truly feel what it was like to be human. For the first time in his life, he experienced the existential pain of separation from God. Isaiah was recited here to explain that Jesus was like a sacrificial sheep from the old days. In those times, people would transfer their sins into a lamb which would then be slaughtered in sacrifice. Having chosen to be the designated sacrificial lamb, God has chosen to experience the pain and suffering we all go through, proving that he is not an aloof God.

Personally, I’d say that even if this act did suspend his aloofness temporarily, in the wider context of history, God is still for the most part highly aloof, to the point of his aloofness being indistinguishable from non-existence. A single incidence of non-aloofness does not a non-aloof deity make.

There are 4 results of what was achieved by Jesus on the cross:

One: The slate has been wiped clean. The sins of the world have been taken away, by Jesus: the one perfect sacrificial lamb.

Two: We can be set free from the both the power of and addiction to sin. “If the son sets you free, you are free indeed”. We are regaled with the supporting story of a hopeless local alcoholic being instantly cured of his addiction after he accepted Jesus into his life. Instantly. He said so.

Three: We can receive total forgiveness. Paul says “Through Christ’s death we have been justified”. Another story: Two childhood friends; one becomes a criminal, the other a judge. One day, the criminal is in court in front of this very judge, by chance. The judge fines the man £500 and promptly takes off his wig and writes out a cheque for £500 which he gives to his wayward old buddy. This is like God and us - he has to judge us but he wants to help us pay the price by killing himself in human form.

Four: We can come home and become part of God’s family, where we can feel relaxed and safe.

God was in Christ. If he wasn’t God, his sacrifice and the whole mechanism of the forgiveness of sin would not work. Jay reminds us one last time that God loves us - even if we were alone on the planet, Jesus would still have come down and sacrificed himself for our sake.

For the first time on the course, we were invited as a group to participate in a prayer with Jay. Here it is:

“Jesus Christ, thank you for dying for me on the cross.
I’m sorry for the things in my life that have been wrong
I now turn away from everything I know is wrong and I receive your gift of forgiveness.
I put my trust in what you did for me on the cross.
Fill me with your holy spirit and give me new life.

Jay leaves us with the sentiment that there might be a lot to take in from this talk. She’s not wrong, so I’ll share the content of the group discussion in my next installment. A lot of what Jay spoke about this week demands a point-by-point response, but I think I’ve commented enough for one week. I’d love you to give me your own reactions in the comments though. If you want a little more, then feel free to read my response (below) to the content of the book I was lent.

Next Week: The Vicar returns, to ask the question “How can we have faith?” You won’t by now be surprised to hear that there is no definite answer, it’s just a rhetorical gambit.


“What About All the Wars?”

Here’s my account of what I read in "Why Trust the Bible?" by Amy Orr-Ewing, for those that are interested.

The book consists of 10 chapters, each of which address a “tough question”. I didn’t read the whole book as I was reading David Aaronovitch’s excellent “Voodoo Histories” at the time. I did read the whole of the chapter entitled “What About All the Wars?” which had been specified as the best response to my queries. I won’t quote the entire sequence of fallacies but the chapter opens like this:

“I am often asked how I can believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion. The implication of this question is that if only people would leave behind their convictions about the existence of God, the world would be a much better, more peaceful place. Of course, very few people ever reflect on the fact that the very reverse of this was demonstrated in the twentieth century, which saw the rise of the atheistic communist and Nazi ideologies and more killing than the previous nineteen centuries put together”

She goes on to acknowledge that religions have indeed led to wars and that the crusades:

“..should never have happened and are certainly not a true reflection of what Jesus came to say and accomplish”.

In that first paragraph, she sidesteps the opening question by introducing the straw man that asking “How can you believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion” is the same thing as believing that without religion, war would disappear. This is a rather obvious fallacy; one can easily ask this question and know that humans fight over all sorts of things - such as territory, for example. She does not answer this question at any point in the chapter; surprising given it’s brought up in the very first sentence of the opening paragraph. My response to the equating of atheism and Nazism etc is to rest my face in the palm of my hand for a few moments.

The chapter goes on to inform us that the Bible came up with rules of war so that they can be fought honourably. The author refers to the “Kindness in the use of the sword” described in Deuteronomy 20, along with ideas such as the requirement for cities to be offered the chance “...to capitulate before a full-scale siege and the destruction of the city.”

I will quote one more sizable extract so that you can see I am not being creative in my positioning of quotation marks. This is the part that refers specifically to the Canaanites. If you remember, I had asked during the first week “I don’t know what the Canaanite children could have been guilty of that would justify their slaughter”. Bear that question in mind as you read this extract:

“In this context the women and children were to be spared from death and were to be cared for by their captors (Deuteronomy 20:14) Only in the case of the particularly depraved inhabitants of Canaan itself was there to be total destruction. The reason given for this was the likely corruption of the moral spiritual standards of Israelite society, in areas such as child sacrifice: ‘they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). This is important as Israel had been chosen to be the bearers of God’s self-revelation to the world; they had been given the precious task of making God known.”

(Emphasis mine)

Where do I start here? Remember, this chapter had been recommended to me by a real, live, pleasant man so that I may find an answer to my concern that the God of the bible might be a capricious, murderous despot. I could go on for hours about this, so I will force myself into a few bullet-points:

  • The “Total destruction” of the “particularly depraved” is legitimised. Think of the persecution of homosexual people in Uganda, deemed depraved by their Christian tormentors.
  • Who at the time decided what depravity is? We know this concept to be subjective.
  • Is the “Likely corruption” of “moral spiritual standards” really sufficient justification for the total destruction of an entire people? Not even actual corruption, but “Likely”.
  • Couldn’t the Israelites have simply chosen not to “follow the detestable things they [the Canaanites] do in worshipping their gods”? I choose not to sacrifice babies every day; I don’t demand the slaughter of those who I am told might try to teach me that it was a good idea. This disdain for the Canaanites sounds like base racism backed up by myths perpetuated by bigots to justify hatred and murder.
  • So because God had “chosen” the Israelites for the precious task of making himself known, they were given licence to slaughter those who might try to corrupt them. Who, apart from the Israelites at the time, was saying that the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Effectively, any self-proclaimed “chosen poeple” can justify genocide, by using the bible’s example.

Pardon my language, please but this thinking is not just idiotic, but contemptible. This is the 21st century and yet still we can see a book full of these ideas being passed from one human to another as a serious attempt to make sense of a “tough question”.