Sunday, May 22, 2005

Birds, Flowers and Finals

First day of Finals tomorrow. It's Rupert's birthday today (poor boy) - happy birthday Rupert!

Also, good luck and God Bless to all my fellow Finalists!

Oxford tradition dictates that you pin a carnation on your gown (which you have to wear when you sit exams, along with a white shirt and a black skirt/ trousers, as well as a black ribbon round your collar, and you must also carry your mortarboard, carry, not wear - don't ask me why, it's tradition). White carnation for the first paper, pink for everything in between, and red for the last paper.

It's not compulsory, and I almost did not want to bother with it. But Rupert asked if we could swop carnations and so I said yes. The carnations are sitting in a cup in my bathroom.

Looking at them the other day, instead of thinking "oh no one more thing to worry about before I take my exam", I thought of something that Jesus had said.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? ...But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." - Matthew 6:25-34

So tomorrow, when I pin the carnation on my gown and walk down to exam schools passing the pigeons that seem to be all over Oxford, and all the tomorrows after that, I will know that if the birds and the flowers survive, I'll make it ok.

Thank you all for all the love.

[Jesus said] A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. - John 13:34

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. - 1 John 4:10-12

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Revolution

Had my last Foundations of Modern Philosophy revision class today, on Max Weber's Politics as a Vocation. We talked about how Weber made a distinction between an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility. The former referring to the grand, sweeping, passionate vision and the latter referring to a more pragmatic personal acceptance of consequences.

The blind pursuit of ultimate ends, though potentially dangerous, is also absolutely necessary. It's only great leaders, with such visions, tempered by a more pragmatic ethic of responsibility, who can affect real change in the modern world. A world, which for Weber, is one that is dominated by bureaucracy, alienation and disenchantment.

For Weber, my tutor said, the human condition is ultimately tragic. He said that when we got to his age, we would start thinking about such things more and more; about how ideals, however much you cherish and believe in them, are not attainable in their purest forms. Weber was not entirely spouting nonsense when he spoke of the world as a continual struggle for power and the state as the ultimate embodiment of violence. (Bleak, yes, but not entirely incorrect.) We can only struggle, and we can only get so far. Weber himself cites Martin Luther who, when pushed to recant his writings on biblical authority, proclaims "Here I stand; I can do no other."

And so the tragedy of the human condition sees humanity caught between great idealism and unachievability.

I think about how, while Luther was one of the great exceptions, and Protestantism spread rather successfully after his death, even if he were alive today, I doubt he would have said that his ideal had been entirely realised.

Ideals are not attainable in their purest form; you may struggle for your personal ideals all your life, to varying degrees of success, but for every great hope, there is greater disappointment. And we are constantly caught between the unlimited dreams that we can conceive, and the stark limits of what we can actually achieve.

And in the end, the end of us is just the end of us, concluded my tutor.

After that rather brief, and rather pessimistic aside, he quickly marched on, taking us through the text. I was very struck by his little diversion because he'd always struck me a very cheerful and ethusiastic person (he's also a great tutor, by the way, one of the best I've had these three years here, and that's saying a lot).

But I guess I shouldn't really have been surprised. Because anyone as clever as he is (and he's frightfully clever) would not have failed to notice that we live in a world that while beautiful in parts, is also immensely flawed. And if we are all there is to it, then yes, I think the human condition is ultimately tragic. We will never fully achieve our ideals in reality, and we often don't even live up to our own ideals in our daily lives.

And maybe you think, well, this is how it is. We are born, we die. And in between we struggle. And there are good bits and bad bits, but you know, I try to focus on the good bits, try my best to fix the bad bits, and if I can't then well, at least I've tried. And if it hurts too much, well, then I'll just try to forget.

But all the while you hear this little voice whispering, there's got to be more to life than this.

And there is. Because the truth is, we can't save ourselves. No revolution or institutional reform or global mass movement will really change anything, if we do not first grapple with the darkness that is in our hearts. The model of the self-seeking, utility-maximising "economic" man, while crude, does capture a significant part of the truth. So much of global injustice today can be attributed to sheer greed.

The very awesome Prof G. A. Cohen, who has written extensively in reply to John Rawls' Theory of Justice (among other things, that is; I also attended his lectures on Plato and Hegel & Marx - he is such a legend), criticised Rawls for having a strictly institutional conception of justice and equality. What good would that be if we can't even treat our fellow citizens with personal respect?

He writes that he's now much more convinced of the nostrum that "for inequality to be overcome, there needs to be a revolution in feeling or motivation, as opposed to (just) in economic structure ...short of a second coming of Jesus Christ ...there will bever be, many people would think, the needed change in motivation." (in If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? p.20)

I believe that no secular conception of morality is going to provide the much needed motivational change; not consequentialim (most famously Mill's utilitarianism), nor deontology (such as Kant's categorical and moral imperatives), nor virtue ethics (first conceived by Aristotle).

No amount of thinking, institution-building or revolution-inciting is going to fundamentally change the way we think and act; the way we treat each other.

What we need, is a spiritual revolution.

Christianity is shaped by the conviction that the eternal wisdom and divine word that is in and through all things, took shape in a particular human life, at a particular time. The divine became part of the flux of human history in order to influence and transform it from within, through communities dedicated to following the word made flesh.

There is an intense inwardness about true religion, and in this it overlaps with the current fashion for spirituality. It does indeed offer inward strength. But the religion of the Bible is not primarily about achieving inward tranquillity. It is just as much about being wracked by a sense of protest and lament at the state of the world: a protest and lament before the very face of God. It is also about seeking to be a sign, through renewed human relationships and restored human communities, that not all hope is lost.

Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, "We Should Not Fear Religion"
The Observer Sunday Dec 19 2004

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Walk

A week to Finals. I am miraculously calm. Peter just asked me the other day why I was so calm. Resigned acceptance? Nope. Overly well-prepared? Hardly. So what is it? Faith, I said.

I had a really nice walk in the park today. The sky was a brilliant blue and all the world was bathed in sunlight. It was good to get out, and not be sitting at my desk; fresh air and good conversation can do wonders.

Thank you all for your prayers and words of encouragement.

Thank you for walking with me.

For you have delivered me from death
and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life. - Psalm 56:13

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Are You There God?

I was just thinking about how prayer can seem like such a strange thing. I remember that Judy Blume wrote a book called "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret." I think I must have read it (I was quite a big Judy Blume fan back in the day), but all that I can remember of it now is the title.

"Are you there God?" How can you speak to someone whom you can't see?

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. - 2 Corinthians 4:18

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. - Hebrews 11:1

How do you know he hears you? Does he even know who you are?
"It's me, Margaret," you say.

O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

...Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast. - Psalm 139:1-10

It's immensely comforting to know that God is always with us, but at the same time, it seems almost frightening to think that anyone could know you so well. I often think that if anyone knew half the thoughts that ran through my mind, they really woudn't want to know me anymore.

This is how we are broken. And this is how we are lost.

We hide from ourselves, we hide from each other and most of all, we hide from God.

After Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, disobeying God and thinking that they knew best what was right and what was wrong, they found themselves ashamed of their nakedness and ashamed of themselves.

When they heard the Lord approaching in the garden, they hid among the trees. Without getting into a big fat theological debate about the book of Genesis, the essence of the fall of man is this - that we chose to disobey God, and take it upon ourselves to decide right and wrong.

This very rebellion against God is the essence of sin - all the other awful stuff we do to ourselves and to each other, that is the consequence of our first rebellion. So we choose to live our lives our way, exalting ourselves above all others, without enough regard for others and without any regard for God.

How then, can we, in our brokenness approach the almighty God? How can we possibly know the creator of all things, the author of the universe and the maker of our souls? He who hung the stars in the heavens, who breathed the clouds into the sky and touched each blade of grass with green. He who is perfect and gave us every good thing. He whose heart we broke the day we chose to turn away.

The most amazing thing about it all, is that God did not give up on us. He did not stay far away, setting the earth into motion and then leaving it alone. Banishing Adam and Eve from his garden and leaving them in the wilderness. He himself came to earth, entered time and space, became one of us, to speak to us in a language that we could understand.

Jesus came to earth, to die the death that we should have died for our rejection of God, so that we might live.

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." - John 14:6

Jesus reconciled us to God by sacrificing himself, in our place, on the cross. And because Jesus is God, his death has infinite worth - reconciling all of fallen humanity to our Father in heaven.

Because of Jesus, we no longer have to hide from God, afraid of the one who sees into all the hearts of men. Because of Jesus, we know that if we confess our sin, apologising for our rebellion, we know that we will be forgiven.

And this is why we can pray. This is why we can approach God freely and with confidence, in spite of our brokenness.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 4:4-7

Find me here
And speak to me
I want to feel you
I need to hear you
You are the light
That's leading me
To the place
Where I find peace

You are the strength
That keeps me walking
You are the hope
That keeps me trusting
You are the light
To my soul
You are my purpose
You're everything

And how can I stand here with you
and not be moved by you?
Would you tell me
how could it be any better than this?

You calm the storms
And you give me rest
You hold me in your hands
You won't let me fall
You still my heart
And you take my breath away
Would you take me in
Take me deeper now

And how can I stand here with you
and not be moved by you?
Would you tell me
how could it be any better than this?

'Cause you're all I want
You're all I need
You're everything

You're all I want
You're all I need
You're everything

And how can I stand here with you
and not be moved by you?
Would you tell me
how could it be any better than this?

Everything by Lifehouse

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Isaiah 40:28-31

I have to say, I'm quite a big fan of the random-bible-page-flip. Just when you think you need to hear something but you're not quite sure what - the random-bible-page-flip is the way to go. For He is always with me and I carry his word in my heart.

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?

The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

- Isaiah 40:28-31

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

His Eye is on the Sparrow

I really needed to hear this today. Got home from the library and hit play on my ipod. My randomised playlist started up. This was the song that came on right after I Could Sing of Your Love Forever - another song I really needed to hear.

Just under two weeks to the beginning of Finals. Had a mild panic today over Plato. But it's all right now. It was always all right.

I just needed to remember what I believe.

It's not just a pretty song (although it is very pretty indeed). It's not just a crutch. It's not a comforting illusion.

It's the truth.

Why should I feel discouraged
Why should the shadows come
Why should my heart feel lonely
And long for heaven and home

When Jesus is my portion

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. - Psalm 73:23-26

A constant friend is He

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. - John 15:13

His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches over me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

[Jesus said] Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. - Luke 12:6-7

I sing because I'm happy
I sing because I'm free

Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." - John 8:31-32

His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

His eye is on the sparrow - Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount (Sister Act II OST)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The greatest thing you'll ever learn...

Had a really good discussion with my college Chaplain at lunch in Hall today. I asked him if he was at the William Lane Craig debate on Friday (see Friday April 29 entry) and he said he wasn't. He asked for a brief recap. We then talked about how when it comes to knowing God, there's a limit to how far your understanding can take you. At some point you have to acknowledge that it is just a mystery, that your finite mind cannot completely grasp the infinite.

That is not an excuse for mysticism and superstition of course; we should push the limits of understanding as far as possible, but there comes a point where you can push no further. Locke, in his Essay on Human Understanding points out in the introduction that we can't know everything, but what we do know, we can systematically understand.

We are not forever groping about in the dark, because even though we don't know the intricate workings of God's mind, we know his very character and his very nature, as revealed in Scripture and supremely in the life and work of Jesus Christ. And if you believe, we can know him also through his very presence and work in our lives. Because knowing is not just a purely intellectual exercise, but a personal experience as well.

When you reach the limits of human understanding, it takes humility to say, Lord, I don't know, but it is enough for me that You know, all the while trusting in His goodness. I don't know exactly how my heater works (clearly I wasn't paying attention in science class...), but I can feel the heat that it produces and it keeps me warm. And that is good enough for me. Of course there is no need for that now that summer's here, thank God.

Another analogy that struck me when I was thinking about the limits of human understanding. This might surprise you (or it might not), but when I was young I was quite the little monster. And when I was punished for my various misdeeds, I never understood why I deserved it - I had done nothing wrong. Much kicking and screaming would ensue. Including several "I hate yous", which of course I never actually meant. The thing is, even though I couldn't (or wouldn't) accept why I was being punished, fundamentally I never doubted that my mother loved me.

So while I don't understand everything (how exactly does the tsunami fit into God's plan?), I know enough of the very nature and character of God, to know that He loves me, and that He loves you.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully,
even as I am fully known. - 1 Corinthians 13:12

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. - 1 John 4:9-10

I remember we spoke about this once, how the Moulin Rouge tagline reads "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return."

When actually, "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is how to be loved, and to love in return."

Because God loved us first.