Why disagreement is not good

In the new edition of his biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, Andrew Atherstone draws the following contrast between the approaches of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor:

‘Rowan Williams spent most of his archepiscopate seeking areas of core theological agreement around which Anglicans could coalesce, most notably in the failed Anglican Covenant. Welby’s project is different: not the pursuit of theological agreement but learning to live with theological disagreement.’

In this quotation Atherstone has put his finger on the heart of Archbishop Welby’s approach to the challenges facing the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree on issues such as women bishops or same-sex relationships the Archbishop is concerned instead with getting people to disagree well with each other, what he has called ‘good disagreement.’

The phrase ‘good disagreement’ is one that the Archbishop has used on several occasions and it has also been used by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, most recently in a statement about the facilitated conversations on issues of human sexuality that are due to take place across the Church of England in the next couple of years. This statement said that one of the objectives of these conversations is ‘to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.’

Unfortunately, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the House of Bishops, nor anyone else, has produced a clear definition of what is meant by ‘good disagreement’ and no understanding of the term has ever been agreed by the Church of England. This is a problem because you cannot begin to think about whether good disagreement is a sensible idea unless and until you know what this term means. In this blog post I want to suggest that whole idea of ‘good disagreement’ is radically misconceived and that what we should be talking about instead is how to handle disagreement, which is in itself necessarily a bad thing, in the best way possible as part of our calling as Christians to be a community of truth.

To begin to think about this topic the first thing we have to be clear about is that ‘disagreement’ is not the same as ‘diversity’. To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be. Thus there is a disagreement between those who think that unaccompanied psalmody is the only permissible form of music in church and those who think that other forms of hymnody can be equally legitimate. Diversity, on the other hand, just means difference. Thus there could be a church that had total agreement that there should be a variety of different styles of music in use in its services. That would be diversity but not disagreement.

The second thing I think we need to be clear about is that disagreement is a result of our fallen condition. God knows the truth about all things. This is what is meant when Job 28:24 tells us that God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ and Hebrews 4:13 declares ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ As creatures made in God’s image human beings are also created to know the truth. We can see this in the account of creation in Genesis in which we are told that ‘the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19). What is described here is an act of truthful discernment. Adam is not just arbitrarily assigning names to the birds and the animals, he is discerning truthfully what they are. Like God he knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things.

If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them. We would all know the truth and we would all agree about the truth. Tragically, however, the result of the big lie told by the devil and accepted by the first human beings (Genesis 3) is that we have lost the ability to always see things as they really are and to always be honest about what we do see. It is for that reason that human beings disagree.

Fortunately, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he has come to restore our ability to know the truth. In John 8:31-32 Jesus declares ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent by Jesus to ‘guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). Like the whole of our re-creation through Jesus, our ability to discern the truth is a work in progress. At the moment ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ (1 Corinthians 13:9) but in heaven we shall understand fully in the same way that we ourselves are fully understood by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce, human beings are created with an innate desire for truth and this desire will one day be satisfied. God will bring us to a place where we can taste truth ‘like honey and be embraced by it like a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched’

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ is an oxymoron like ‘virtuous sin’. Disagreement can never in itself be good. We disagree because in our fallen condition we either don’t know the truth, or are unwilling to accept it when it is presented to us. The vocation of the Church is therefore not to practice ‘good disagreement.’ The vocation of the Church is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated.

The saints in glory presumably already fully practice this vocation. However, as already noted, those of us who are still on earth remain imperfect in knowledge and therefore don’t have a full knowledge of the truth. We are also still sinful and therefore unwilling to accept the truth when it challenges what we want to believe, makes us look bad, or involves having to admit we were wrong. For these reasons the potential for disagreement will always be present in the Church and we have to think about how to handle it in the best way possible. This means that while we can never sensibly talk about ‘good disagreement’ it does make sense to talk about better and worse ways of handling disagreement.

We have to begin by recognizing that our own knowledge of the truth and willingness to accept is limited. We therefore always need to be willing to accept correction from those with whom we disagree and change what we think or do providing that we that our reason for change is a greater perception of truth and not just a desire to please someone else or achieve some advantage for ourselves.

We also have to recognize that those with whom we disagree are people. This means that the prohibitions in the sixth and ninth commandments (Exodus 20: 13 and 16) apply. As the paraphrase of the commandments in the Prayer Book Catechism tells us, these commandments tell us that we are ‘to hurt nobody by word nor deed’, ‘to bear no malice in my heart’ and to keep our tongue ‘from evil-speaking, lying and slandering.’ However strongly we disagree with people, and however much this may lead us to want to attack them in word or deed, the commandments still apply and so we may not do so. We may legitimately criticize their beliefs or actions, but we may not attack them as people, but should instead pray that God will deliver them from error.

Finally we need to understand that the command to ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 19:19) means that as far as we can we are called to lead people into truth and protect them from error. If we know that someone is in error, particularly when that error is about something serious, and especially when it has to do with their obedience to God, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘Ok, go your own way then.’ That would be failure of love. Human beings are made not to live in error, but to live in the truth, and if we can help this to happen then we have an inescapable obligation to do so.

Equally, in so far as we able to do so we have an obligation to protect people from error. That is to say, when there are people who know the truth, but may potentially be tempted to depart from it we must do our best to prevent this happening. This is a particularly important part of the vocation of church leaders. That is what St Paul was getting at when he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus

‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:28)

Caring for the flock means seeking to prevent the sheep being led astray.

In the light of all this I suggest that Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops should expunge the term ‘good disagreement’ from their vocabulary. They should talk instead about the importance of the Church of England being a truthful community, a community which aims at agreement in the truth and in which those with leadership roles take seriously their responsibility to encourage this search for truth and, as far as possible, to protect the faithful from error.


Marriage, Sex and Salvation – Part II

Marriage, Sex and Salvation – Part II

In the first part of this blog post I explained how the traditional Christian sexual ethic is based on God’s creation of human beings as male and female and on a summons to sexual holiness that flows from this. I further explained that this ethic can be summarised in the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: ‘the Christian rule is ‘either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’’

There are three challenges which are normally made to the Christian sexual ethic as I have described it. These are (a) that love is the most important thing in sexual ethics and that sex does not have to be within marriage in order to be loving, (b) it is unkind to expect anyone to live without sex and (c) that provided sexual activity takes place between consenting adults and does not harm anyone else then it is ethically acceptable.

Beginning with the first objection, the key point is that what love means can only be understood in relation to the created order as God has established it. According to Christian love is about helping the created order to achieve the end intended for it by God. Thus as Oliver O’Donovan writes in his book Resurrection and Moral Order, love:

…attempts to act for any being only on the basis of the appreciation of that being. Thus classical Christian descriptions of love are often found invoking two other terms which expound its sense; the first is ‘wisdom,’ which is the intellectual apprehension of the order of things which discloses how each stands in relation to the other; the second is ‘delight’ which is affective attention to something simply for what it is and the fact that it is.

This may sound terribly abstract, but it is relevant to our concern because it means that in order to love any other human being properly I have to understand and delight in who they are and act accordingly. This means that if I understand that they are not my wife or husband, but are instead my mother, or a friend of the same sex, or someone who is married to someone else, I am called to delight in them as they are and not seek to have sex with them. To have sex with them would be to contravene the will of God by acting against the way that God has made them to be and the way God has made me to be and would therefore not be behaving with love.

Moving on to the second objection, the point that has to be understood is that being unkind to someone means not giving them some legitimate good which it is proper for them to have as human beings. Thus the way that God has made human beings means that it is proper for all humans to have food, water, shelter, education, friendship and so forth, and it would be unkind to deprive anyone of these things.

Marriage (and sex as part of marriage) is likewise a good of which it would be unkind to deprive people. That is why Paul in 1Timothy 4:3 rejects as heretical those who ‘forbid marriage’ and why the Christian Church down the ages has always taken the same position. However, sex outside marriage is not something that is good and therefore it would not be unkind to say that people should not engage in it. It is like the way in which food is good, but gluttony is not and that drink is good but drunkenness is not. It would not be unkind to say that people should not engage in gluttony and drunkenness and similarly it is not unkind to say that people should not engage in extra marital sex.

It should also be noted that, although marriage is a good, it is not a necessary good for every human being in the same way that things like food, drink, shelter and education are. As the example of Jesus, Paul, and millions of others down the centuries have shown, it is possible to live a perfectly happy and fulfilled life without being married. This means that saying that particular people have to be allowed to marry in order to be fulfilled as human beings is simply mistaken. Furthermore, when it is claimed that the traditional Christian position has been that ‘gay people are not allowed to marry’ this is also mistaken. They are just as entitled to marry as anyone else. It is just that they cannot marry someone of the same sex since that is not marriage, in the same way that a triangle is not a square.

Moving on to the third and final objection, what has to be grasped is that all inappropriate forms of sexual activity always harm somebody. Because they are sinful they harm the individuals who engage in them spiritually and potentially eternally. To put it another way, sinful sex (like all other forms of sin) poisons the soul because it involves a rejection of God’s will. That is why Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we have to take drastic action if we are being led into such sin (‘If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell’).

In addition, sexual sin causes temporal harm both to individuals and to society. First of all, sexual promiscuity damages people’s physical and mental health and even their enjoyment of sex itself. Secondly, faithful and stable marital relationships are the bedrock of society and when they are undermined by a climate of sexual license this damages society as a whole. Thus the American writer Caitlin Flanagan writes concerning the impact on the United States of the sexual revolution that has taken place there since the 1960s:

There is no other single force causing as much human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mother’s financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.

To put it simply, there is a price for free love and it has been paid by single mothers, by children and by the poor. Defending traditional Christian sexual morality is thus a key part of the Christian duty to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

If all this is so, what are the missionary and pastoral issues that we need to think about?

We are called to be counter-cultural.

Jesus called his disciples to be salt and light in a corrupt and dark world (Matthew
5:13-16). In order to carry out this mandate we need to be counter-cultural in both our teaching and our lifestyle. This is as true in the area of marriage and sexuality as in any other area. If we fail to do this we are failing both God and the needy world to which he has sent us.

We need to acknowledge that we are all sinners

As the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) reminds us, we are never in a position to throw stones at other people for their sexual conduct. The starting point for our mission and pastoral care is not that we are righteous and everyone else is not. The starting point is instead that both we and the people to whom God calls us to minister are sinners who stand together in need of God’s mercy and God’s healing and re-creative power.

Sin is like mushrooms

Sexual sin (like every other kind of sin) is like mushrooms. Why? Because it flourishes in the dark. The only way we can deal effectively with our own sin and the sins of others is if we and they acknowledge and are appropriately open about our shortcomings. Obviously confidentiality has to be respected, but unless people are prepared to admit to other members of the Church that they are in difficulty and need God’s help then they will not be able to receive the support, counsel and prayer that they need in order for sin to be defeated.

We need to be welcoming but not affirming.

In her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield writes that the Pastor who led her to Christ ‘stressed that he accepted me as a lesbian, but that he didn’t approve of me as a lesbian.’ This distinction between acceptance and approval is a crucial one. God accepts us as we are, but he does not approve of our sinfulness and calls us to let him heal us of it. We have to have the same attitude. We need to accept people as they are, but be prepared to challenge them and walk with them as they seek to become the people God calls them to be.

We need to be role models

What will give credibility to our teaching about sexual ethics is the credibility of our life styles. Conversely, our own personal failures will discredit our teaching. This means that we need to be as scrupulous as we can be about our own personal conduct, not just for the sake our relationship with God, but also for the sake of the example that we are called to give to those around us.

We need to be patient.

Particularly in the area of sexuality, sin is extremely powerful. This is, firstly, because of all the biological drives which affect human beings the sex drive is the one linked most strongly to pleasure and the impulse to pleasure is extremely powerful and addictive. Sexual addiction works just like other forms of addiction such as addiction to alcohol and drugs, which is why it leads otherwise sensible people to do incredibly stupid things. It is also because sexual activity normally involves relationships with other people and these can be very difficult to walk away from.

This combination of biology and relationships means that changing patterns of sexual behaviour is generally very difficult and can take a long time. This in turn means that if we want to help people to pursue holiness in this area we need to be in it for the long term. There is extremely unlikely to be any quick fix. However, we must never give up because there is literally no limit to what the power of God can do. The God who created the world and who raised Jesus from the dead is even more powerful than sex.

Marriage, sex and salvation – Part I

Marriage, Sexuality and Salvation: Part I

This week’s blog is the first of a two part exploration of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality and how this relates to the Christian view that our life in this world is a journey towards the world that is to come, a journey that has two possible outcomes.

The recent introduction of same sex ‘marriage’ has made the Christian view of sex and marriage a very controversial topic at the moment and it often comes up in the context of evangelism. One of the excuses that is now often given for refusing to engage with the truth claims made by the Christian faith is that Christians have old fashioned and repressive attitudes towards human sexuality, and particularly towards homosexuality, and therefore whatever else they may have to say is not worthy of further consideration. To put it simply, Christians are homophobic bigots and that is the end of the matter.

Now, what I am not going to give you in this blog is a crushing one line answer to this objection to Christian faith. Even if I was capable of doing so (which I am not), I do not think that this would be very helpful. One line answers, crushing or otherwise, are rarely very useful in evangelism. People are not generally won for Christ through clever intellectual arguments, but by the Holy Spirit working through long term, patient dialogue backed up by the consistent witness of people’s lifestyles.

What I shall do instead is attempt to set out the mainstream Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality which has been held in the Church for the last two thousand years and to explain why, from a Christian standpoint, it makes sense.

The Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality, like the Christian understanding of everything else in life, starts off with the conviction that we have to view this present world as a place that we are passing through on the way to somewhere else. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: ‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrew 13:14). Like the hero of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress we are on a journey towards the celestial city, ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven’ described by St. John in Revelation 21-22, the place where we shall be eternally blessed by sharing life with God for ever.

One of the key points made by Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress is that reaching the celestial city is not inevitable. You have to be a certain type of person living in a certain type of way to get there. In the Bible what it means to be this kind of person is set out for us in Psalm 1.

‘Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.’

What this tells us is that there are two ways to live and that it is only the person whose life is focussed on obedience to God’s law, that is the will of God as this has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture, who is blessed by God and who will be able to endure the final judgement and live with God for ever.

The idea that there will be a final judgement which will lead to some people being excluded for ever from the kingdom of God is something that many people find hard to accept, but it makes sense once you understand that God’s kingdom is, as the Lord’s Prayer says, that place where God’s will is done. The citizens of the kingdom are thus those human beings and angels who are capable of delighting in God and his will. Conversely those human beings and angels who, through their own choices, have made themselves incapable of delighting in God and his will, cannot dwell in that kingdom. They will have excluded themselves from it and God’s judgement will be declaration of that reality. To quote C S Lewis, in the end ‘there are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’

What all this means is that this life is a serious business. What we do in this life really matters because it has eternal consequences. What is true of life in general is also true of our conduct in respect of sex. This, too, involves making a choice about whether to go God’s way or not. This is made clear, for example, in the following two passages, one from Jesus himself and one from Paul.

First Jesus

‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’ (Matthew 5:27-30)

Then Paul

‘God’s plan is to make you holy, and that entails first of all a clean cut with sexual immorality. Every one of you should learn to control his body, keeping it pure and treating it with respect, and never regarding it as an instrument for self-gratification, as do pagans with no knowledge of God. You cannot break this rule without in some way cheating your fellow-men. And you must remember that God will punish all who do offend in this matter, and we have warned you how we have seen this work out in our experience of life. The calling of God is not to impurity but to the most thorough purity, and anyone who makes light of the matter is not making light of man’s ruling but of God’s command. It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 – J.B. Philips translation)

Both of these passages make it clear that sexual immorality is completely incompatible with being a follower of Jesus Christ. God will judge not only sexually immoral actions, but even sexually immoral thoughts, and as Christians we need to live in the light of this fact. Sexual holiness is therefore not optional.

If we are to live lives of sexual holiness we need to know what such holiness involves. What is God’s will for human beings in relation to their sexual conduct? In the two passages just quoted we have seen snapshots of what is involved, but what is the big picture they reflect?

To understand this big picture we have to go right back to the beginning, to the accounts of God’s creation of the human race contained in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. The reason these two chapters are crucial is because they lay down God’s intention for human life on this planet, an intention that he has never revoked. Just as Jesus’ resurrection did not mean a rejection of his human nature, but its taking up into a new stage of human existence, so also the new life that God grants us as Christians does not cancel out God’s purpose for us as human beings laid down at creation, but enables us to fulfil it.

For the purposes of understanding what sexual holiness involves there are two key passages from Genesis that we need to consider. The first is Genesis 1:26-28:

‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” ‘

The second is Genesis 2:18-24:

‘Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’

The first passage tell us that God made human beings in two sexes, both of whom were equally created in God’s image and likeness, and that men and women together are blessed by God and are called to be fruitful and multiply and to exercise stewardship over the created order on God’s behalf.

The second tells us that marriage is the social form that gives primary expression to the divinely created relationship of interdependence between men and women. The man is incomplete on his own and cannot fulfil the vocation that God has given him and so God creates the woman to be his perfect companion and therefore in marriage ‘a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ Each marriage, that is to say, is a fresh expression and re-affirmation of God’s original creation of men and women to serve him together in the world. In addition, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21-32, it is also intended to be an image of the relationships between Christ and his Church, in the same way that in the Old Testament marriage was an image of the relationship between God and Israel.

It is within this marital relationship that sex has its proper place. Within marriage, sex has three equally important functions. First, it consummates the union between a man and a woman. It is the physical means through which the two become ‘one flesh.’ Secondly, it is a means through which, by the giving and receiving of physical pleasure the love between a married couple is expressed and deepened (for a biblical account of this see the Song of Songs throughout). Thirdly, it is the normal and natural means by which a married couple can fulfil the God given mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’

Just as the God given purpose of food is to satisfy our hunger and the purpose of drink is to satisfy our thirst, so the God given purpose of sex is to fulfil these three ends within marriage.

The Christian sexual ethic is based on this fact in a number of ways.

First of all it holds that sex is a good within marriage and that, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, a married couple should therefore not refuse sexual relations with each other except for a specific purpose and for a specific period of time.

Secondly, it holds that although not every act of sexual intercourse should be expected or intended to lead to the procreation of children, nevertheless sexual relations should be open to fulfilment through the gift of children. For this reason a sexual relationship within marriage that was intentionally closed to having any children would be morally wrong. This is, incidentally, something on which Anglicans and Roman Catholics have traditionally agreed. The difference between the two traditions has been that since the 1930s Anglicans have felt it right to use artificial contraception to limit fertility whereas Roman Catholics have argued for the use of natural family planning instead.

Thirdly, it holds that because God wills that sex should find its proper place within marriage, sex outside the marital context is sinful. Once again the analogy with food and drink is illuminating.

Food has a good and pleasurable place in human existence when it used to satisfy hunger. However, when desire for the consumption of food becomes an end in itself and becomes excessive this is the sin of gluttony. Likewise, the consumption of alcoholic drink if one is thirsty is a perfectly good thing to do, but the immoderate consumption of alcohol purely for the sake of intoxication becomes the sin of drunkenness.

In a similar way sex has a proper place in human existence within marriage for the purposes outlined above. However, forms of sexual activity that fall outside of this context constitute the sin which the New Testament refers to by the blanket term ‘porneia’ which is translated into English as ‘sexual uncleanness’ or ‘sexual immorality.’

These forms of sexual activity can be broken down into a number of categories. There are unacceptable forms of sex within marriage such as marital rape and sadomasochism (popularised today in Fifty Shades of Grey and its numerous imitators). There is sex before marriage. There is sex outside marriage in the form of adultery. Finally, there are forms of sexual activity that fall outside the parameters laid down for marriage, including necrophilia, bestiality, paedophilia, incest, and, controversially today, homosexuality. Some of these forms of sexual activity are specifically condemned in Scripture (see for example the list of sexual offences in Leviticus 18:1-23) and others, such as sadomasochism within marriage, have to be rejected because they go against what Scripture teaches about the dignity of the human person.

The reason that homosexuality is on the list is that it falls outside the parameters of marriage for two reasons: firstly, because it is a relationship between two men or two women rather than a man and a woman and secondly because it is intrinsically closed to the procreation of children. A relationship that is between two people of the same sex and that can never be procreative is simply not marriage. Therefore homosexual sex can never be marital sex and as such it must always be sinful.

In summary, we can thus say with C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity that ‘the Christian rule is ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’’ We can also see that this rule makes perfect sense once you understand sex within its proper God given context of marriage.

However, as we know, not everyone is happy with the traditional Christian approach, so in next week’s blog I shall begin by looking at a series of objections to the traditional Christian position and explaining why I think they are mistaken.

How God became Jesus

How God became Jesus

The heading of this blog post is taken from the title of a new book defending the doctrine of the incarnation against the arguments of the American writer Bart Ehrman (for details see http://www.zondervan.com/how-god-became-jesus.html). When I saw the title of this book my mind turned to thinking about the virginal conception of Christ since this was the moment that the incarnation took place, the point in space and time when ‘God became Jesus.’

I have quite deliberately written ‘the virginal conception of Christ’ rather than using the more traditional formula ‘the virgin birth of Christ.’ This is because the miracle recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1:18-25) and Luke (Luke 1:26-37 and 2:1-7) has to do with how Jesus was conceived and not with how he was born. As far as we know the birth of Jesus was non-miraculous. As part of God entering fully into the human condition it was just as painful and messy as any other human birth since the fall.

The miracle described in the Gospels is summarised in the words of the Nicene Creed which declares that God the Son ‘was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.’ The miracle has two aspects. Positively, it says that the incarnation, the coming into existence of Jesus Christ as one person with two natures, one divine and one human, was a miraculous act of God through the Holy Spirit. Negatively, it says that Jesus that Mary was a virgin and that therefore Jesus had no human father.

For a long time now those who have difficulties with the supernatural aspects of Christianity have had problems with the idea that Jesus had a miraculous conception. The reason that a reference to the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was included in the Creeds and in Article II of the Thirty Nine Articles was to make clear that Jesus was truly human since he took human nature from the humanity of his mother. Ironically, however, the virginal conception has since become a stumbling block to those who hold that such a thing would be impossible or would mean that Jesus was not truly human.

In response to these objections we need to note, firstly, that nothing is impossible with God. Whatever he creates is truly created. We can see this if we consider the gospel stories of the conversion of water into wine (John 2:1-11) and the multiplication of loaves and fishes (John 6:1-14). In both cases what came into being came into being miraculously rather than naturally. Nevertheless, we are told that what resulted was wine, bread and fish. What God creates is truly created. This means that if God chooses to create human nature from the Virgin Mary then what He takes is truly human nature even though it came into existence through the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit rather than as a result of sexual intercourse.

Secondly, as C S Lewis notes in his book Miracles, what we see in the case of the virginal conception is simply a telescoped version of what takes place in all human births. Lewis points out that in all conceptions ‘the human father is simply an instrument,’ he is but the latest of a long line of carriers through which God has passed on life from one generation to the next. However, ‘once, and for a special purpose’ God ‘dispensed with that long line which is His instrument: once His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events. Once the great glove of Nature was taken off His hand. His naked hand touched her.’

What we see in the birth of Christ is what is fundamentally true of all births, namely, that they are the result of the creative activity of God bringing new life into being in the body of a woman. It follows that what happened in the case of the birth of Christ cannot call His true humanity into question. If the action of God means that Christ was not truly human then the truth that Lewis highlights means that no other baby is truly human either (a position which no one has yet sought to defend).

Thirdly, we cannot decided in advance what God did or did not do. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was miraculously conceived and that Jesus partook of the ‘same nature’ (Hebrews 2:14) as all other human beings. We therefore have to accept both truths rather than trying to second guess God (never a good idea).

If we accept that God acted in this miraculous fashion we are still left with the question of the significance of the miracles. All biblical miracles have meanings. In the language of John’s Gospel they are ‘signs’ pointing us to some aspect of the relation between God and man. Thus the raising of Lazarus points us to Jesus being ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25) and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes points us to Jesus being the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35).

If we ask what the virginal conception signifies, the answer is twofold.

First, the conception of Jesus by the action of the Holy Spirit point us to the truth that it is the work of the Holy Spirit (‘the Lord and giver of life’ to quote the Creed) that makes possible the union of human beings and God that takes place in Christ. To quote the great Swiss theologian Karl Bath:

‘Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit, flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such ‘the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor 3:17 is Himself the Lord.’

Secondly, the virginal nature of the conception points us to the fact that it is only the action of God the Holy Spirit and not anything that we can do as human beings that makes union with God possible. If we look at the biblical account of the birth of Christ and consider the place of Mary’s virginity within it what we find is that her virginity has no positive significance of its own. It is, purely and simply, the human not working that as such highlights the working of God. Like the biblical accounts of births from barren mothers such as those of Isaac (Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7), Samson (Judges 13:1-20) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) there is a contrast between human inability and divine ability that mirrors the bigger biblical picture of the way in which God relates to humankind.

Once again this point is picked up by Barth who notes that from the biblical perspective the absence of human sexual activity in connection with the birth of Christ is not because heterosexual sexual activity is considered sinful per se (as some accounts of the virginal conception have sometimes suggested), but because it is a sign of the fact that all human striving and achieving comes under the judgement of God and is set aside in favour of the work of God.

He writes that human virginity too comes under God’s judgement, in the sense that it is not Mary’s virginity but the work of the Spirit that brings about the birth of Christ, but that by grace her virginity becomes a sign of the divine activity:

 ‘Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connexion for divine grace, lies under its judgement. Yet it becomes,not   by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of the judgement passed upon man, and to that extent the sign of divine grace. For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work. Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only –and even that because God has presented him with Himself – in his readiness for God. So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man. So much does God insist that He alone is Lord by espousing the cause of man. This is the mystery of grace to which the natus ex virgine points. The sinful life of sex is excluded as the source of the human existence of Jesus Christ, not because of the nature of sexual life nor because of its sinfulness, but because every natural generation is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man. No event of natural generation will be a sign of the mystery indicated here.’

As Barth says, these two points about the significance of the virginal conception do not mean that human beings have no role to play in their own salvation; that God does everything and that we do nothing. The accounts of Mary and Joseph in the gospels tell us that we do have a role to play, but that our role is to assent to what God is doing in gratitude and obedience, even when what God is doing is totally unexpected, does not at first seem to make any kind of rational sense and exposes us to ridicule or even danger. Like Mary, we have to learn to say even in such circumstances ‘let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:37).

Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

The question of whether there is life on Mars or elsewhere in the universe, and what this life may be like, is one that continues to fascinate people. It is a question that has been addressed in numerous works of science fiction and it is also the subject of serious scientific enquiry. For example, NASA is currently conducting a series of missions to address the issue of whether life has ever existed on Mars and the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) projects have employed a number of scientific methods to look for signs of intelligent life outside this planet (such as monitoring electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from advanced civilizations on other worlds).

In this blog I want to consider the Christian approach to the issue of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.

The first and most obvious point to make in this connection is that Christians know that they are not alone in the universe. They know that there is a God who created all things (Genesis 1:1) and who is present everywhere and at all times. As the Psalmist notes in Psalm 139:7-12, there is literally nowhere that we can go to get away from God:

‘Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with thee.’

This universal presence of God means, for instance, that whatever other forms of life there may be, or may have been, on Mars the life of God is most certainly there.

Christians also know that alongside God and the created beings that exist on our planet, the universe also contains a whole host of created spiritual beings who come in two classes, angels and demons.

According to Scripture there are innumerable multitudes of angels (Revelation 5:11 talks about ‘myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands’) and what they all have in common is that they are spirits who are servants and messengers of God. In Psalm 103:20-21 we read:

Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
hearkening to the voice of his word!
Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will!

In similar fashion Hebrews 1:14 describes angels as ‘ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation.’

In Scripture we are also told in more specific terms that angels offer God unceasing prayer and worship (Isaiah 6:1-3) and that they convey God’s messages (Luke 1:26-37) and serve and protect God’s people (Psalm 34:7). On occasion they also act in a military capacity, waging war on the enemies of God and on the demons (Joshua 5:13-15, Revelation 12:7-9).

The demons are described collectively in the Bible as ‘the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41). The devil (also called ‘Satan’) is their leader and the demons are his followers. They are ‘anti-angels’, angelic spirits who have rebelled against God. In the biblical narrative the devil is responsible for the first humans turning away from God (Genesis 3) and throughout the rest of the biblical story the devil and his angels continue to have a malign influence on human history, making accusations against human beings before God (Job 1:6-2:9), tempting them to sin (Matthew 4:1-11) and instigating the persecution of God’s people (1 Peter 5:8-9). The demons have been decisively defeated by Christ (1 John 3:8) and will be condemned to eternal punishment at the end of time, but at the moment they are still active and still spiritually dangerous.

The biblical account of angels and demons makes it clear that just as human history cannot be reduced to the activity of human beings, so also it cannot simply be reduced to the story of human beings and God. The reality is that human history is the result of a complex interaction between the providence of God and the activities and decisions of angels, demons and human beings in the context of a cosmic struggle between spiritual good and evil, a struggle in which the good is triumphant, but evil is still active. A good fictional depiction of this truth can be found in C S Lewis’ science fiction trilogy Out of the silent planet, Voyage to Venus and That hideous strength.

In this trilogy Lewis imagines that as well as creating angels and demons and the material life on this planet God has also created other material beings on other planets. From a Christian perspective we need to be open to the existence of such beings, but whether or not they exist is a matter for further discovery.

Unlike God who necessarily exists, all created beings are contingent. That is to say, they do not have to exist and the only reason they do exist is by God’s will. As the heavenly elders sing in Revelation 4:11: ‘Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.’ Whether God has willed to create material life elsewhere in the universe is something that at the moment we simply do not know.

Reason tells us that God has created a universe which is fine tuned to allow the existence of material life. This is why the universe is as old as it is and as large as it is. The physical processes which make life possible require this to be the case.

Reason can therefore say that material life elsewhere in the universe is possible. What it cannot tell is whether such life is probable or actual. That is because, as I have said, the existence of such life is dependent on whether or not God wills it and we do not know whether he does or not.

The two sources of possible information about the matter are Scripture and experience. In the case of angels and demons Scripture tells us that they exist and what Scripture says is supplemented by experience of numerous human beings down the centuries who have encountered them. In the case of material life on other planets both Scripture and experience are silent.

The silence of Scripture does not rule out the existence of material life elsewhere in the universe. All it tells us is that God has not thought it necessary to tell us about such life, if it exists, for the sake of our spiritual wellbeing. Scripture has a practical focus on fitting us for God’s kingdom and the answer to the question ‘is there life on Mars?’ (or elsewhere) is not relevant to this.

What the silence of Scripture means, however, is that we are dependent on what experience tells us and it has not told us anything yet. However, it may do so in the future. By the time you read this the Vulcans may have made first contact and told us to ‘live long and prosper.’

All this is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that if there is material life elsewhere in the universe it was created by God the Father through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6), has been redeemed by Christ (Colossians 1:20) and will one day be united in Christ in God’s eternal kingdom (Ephesians 1:10). What all this might mean in detail is something that we don’t currently need to know about. What we do know is that, as they say, ‘there’s a war on.’ What we have been informed about is the cosmic conflict between God and the angels on one side and the devil and his demons on the other, and we have to decide which side we want to be on. It is this decision that matters for us today.

Who am I?

Who am I?

The television programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which people learn more about their ancestors and thereby, it is suggested, more about themselves, has been a big success on both sides of the Atlantic.

The success of this show reflects the fact that a proper understanding of who we are is essential to our ability to function effectively as human beings. Those who lose their knowledge of who they are through either accident or disease suffer acute disorientation which prevents them from living normal lives or relating properly to those around them.

It follows from this that we need to know who we are, but this in turn is something that can be defined in a whole variety of different ways. For example, people understand themselves in terms of their family relationships (‘I am a mother or a son’), their ethnicity (‘I am English or Chinese’), their age ( ‘I am a teenager or a senior citizen’ ) sexuality (‘I am straight or gay’) or their employment (‘I am a hairdresser or a brain surgeon’).

However, what I want to look at in this blog is what it means to understand our personal identity in Christian terms. In order to do this I shall draw on material from the Catechism in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. This catechism begins in the following way:

‘Question. What is your Name?
Answer. N. or M.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’

In this section the catechism is using ‘name’ in the biblical sense of a name that expresses someone’s true identity. Thus in Genesis 17:5 Abram receives the name Abraham (‘father of a multitude’) in recognition of his appointment by God as the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Similarly in Matthew 1:21 Joseph is told to give his son the name Jesus (‘God saves’) ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’

By using the term ‘name’ in this way the catechism is telling us that it is in our baptism that we receive our true identity. In the baptism service the minister addresses the candidate by their name (in the case of the Prayer Book service for the baptism of infants the name supplied to the minister by the Godparents) and then, in accordance with Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19, baptises them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Because ‘name’ is being used in the baptism service to refer to our true identity, who we really are, by baptising the candidate in his or her name into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit the minister is declaring that from henceforth the one who has been baptised shares the identity of God Himself. As 2 Peter 1:4 puts it they come to ‘share the divine nature.’ One of the Early Church Fathers, St Athanasius, said that ‘God became Man that we might become God,’ and baptism is where this miracle happens.

The catechism uses three pictures drawn from the Bible to describe this miracle.

First, it says that when we were baptised we were ‘made a member of Christ.’ This picture is taken from 1 Corinthians 12:13 and it tells us that through the Spirit we are as much part of Christ as a part of our body is part of us. Since Christ is God it follows that we share in God’s own life.

Secondly, it says we became ‘the child of God.’ This picture is taken from what St Paul says in Galatians 3:1-4:7 and the idea it conveys is one of adoption. From all eternity God the Son who became incarnate as Jesus Christ has related as a son to God the Father through the Spirit. At our baptism, through becoming members of Christ, we were adopted into that eternal relationship and so we can call out to God ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 4:6).

Thirdly, it says we became an ‘an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’ This picture too is derived from St Paul’s teaching in Galatians and from other New Testament passages such as Luke 12:32, Romans 8:17 and Colossians 1:12-13. The idea here is that God the Son has received from the Father the promise of rule over the new creation that God will bring in at the end of time (see Psalm 2) and as God’s children through Christ that inheritance is ours as well. We shall reign with Christ in the world that is to come (2 Timothy 2:12) thus fulfilling the calling to exercise dominion over the created order given to the first human beings (Genesis 1:28).

The overall message that we are presented with by these pictures is helpfully summarised by C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. In a chapter entitled ‘Good infection’ he writes:

‘Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share a life which was begotten not made, which has always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has – by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.’

What all this means is that from a Christian perspective those who have been baptised into Christ have an identity that can no longer be defined by all the normal categories of family, ethnicity, sexuality, employment and so forth. That is why St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27-28: ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The Apostle is not denying that the Christians in Galatia were Jews or Greeks, men or women, slaves or freemen. What he is saying is that all these are now secondary characteristics. What defines them is the common identity that they have in Christ as members of Christ, sons and daughters of God and inheritors of God’s coming kingdom.

The answer every baptised Christian can therefore give to the question ‘who do you think you are?’ is ‘I am a miracle. God became Man than I might become God and through the grace of God given to me at my baptism I was adopted by God, made part of the life of God and given a new existence that will last forever. ‘