Tag Archives: humanity

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Meat and more: You are more, but not less than, your body… and Christmas shows why ‘meat’ matters

“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)

This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).

It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.

One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.

The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).

But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.

The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human.  In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology).  Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension;  this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.

It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:

“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer

Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :

“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”

I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.

‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”

At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.

”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.

“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”

“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”

I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.

“You have to actually do it,” she said.

“How?” I said.

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

So I did.

I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.

David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us. 

“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest

Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:

“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest

One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.

Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.

You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest

And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.

It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest

For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not

In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not

This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not

For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the body working in sync with the ‘soul’ and flourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…  

“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not

These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.

Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma

The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.

The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.

The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.

The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.

The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.

The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.

Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…

There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.

Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1

Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…

We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.

Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14

This is not Presbyterian: A response to ‘Step Right Up’ an article in the Australian Presbyterian Magazine

An article has been published in my denomination’s national publication (Australian Presbyterian) that I feel compelled to strongly, and publicly, disagree with. This is still, I think, my biggest platform. A dilemma I face is that by publishing here more people might feel drawn to read the original piece which is, frankly, destructive and dangerous. If this article, Jared Hood’s Step Right Up, represented anything like an official position in the denomination (and it is presented, unchallenged, without counterpoint as all op-eds are), then I would expect my wife and daughters to leave the Presbyterian Church, following, or followed by, every single man and woman in our congregation, every infertile couple, every same sex attracted person. In a church congregation of around 120 people, we’d have very few left, if everyone who cares about ministering to and with people in these categories left too our church would be empty. There would be nobody.

This article, which I will quote below, is not Presbyterian in an official sense. It’s an extreme position held by a legitimate Presbyterian academic who teaches in one of our colleges – but it is not the party line. It is, in my opinion, outrageous. Articles in this publication have become more outrageous over recent times as we ratchet up the culture wars and our rhetoric becomes simultaneously more fearful and more stridently combative in the face of the demise of Christendom (as though this is a recent thing). The strategy the magazine appears to have adopted in response, via this article, is “breed more”… because apparently that’s God’s answer. The problem is that this magazine seems to speak on behalf of the denomination I belong to. I can’t claim to offer the exclusively true Presbyterian position, but I think I can suggest that this is not a representative view, and if it is, then I’ll hand in my membership.

When we talk about ‘purpose’ which this article does, especially when we conflate ‘purpose’ with ‘ends’ we’re talking in the realm of what Aristotle and others call the ‘telos’ — this article has a problematic view of what marriage is for (kids), what life is for (marriage) and what Christians are for (ruling). It misses how Jesus is a game-changer.

This piece has a wonky view of the telos of marriage

“What is marriage about in Scripture? Chiefly two things. First it is about the physical relationship between a man and a woman. Genesis comes straight to it: “one flesh”. The main meaning is as obvious as Shakespear’s crude “beast with two backs”… Second, “one flesh” is at the core of marriage, but it is not the core… The singular fundamental purpose of marriage is this: to have children.” — Jared Hood

It’s a big jump to go from ‘marriage involves sex’ which is true, and ‘sex leads to children’ which is true but only sometimes, to the ‘singular fundamental purpose of marriage’ is to have children. Children are a good fruit of marriage. But our bodies are often so messed up by the brokenness and frustration of the world that having children itself is not guaranteed in marriage, and plenty of people get married after child bearing age (we’ll talk about how limited a view of humanity in general is on display here below). Marriage is about two different people becoming one — this is how we bear God’s image in marriage. Producing new life via giving birth is another part of us reflecting who God is, and we don’t want to understate that case, but this is a pretty utilitarian view of marriage that assess marriage’s purpose entirely on the ends it might lead to. Faithfulness through the trial of not producing offspring — for married people, or single people — is something God appears to approve of and bless throughout the Biblical story (but fruitfulness in terms of ‘seed’ or offspring’ is definitely something people desire.

But the telos of Christian marriage is not children. It’s Christlikeness. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. This character that grows in us as relate to our spouses is the same character God grows in those who are unable to get married, unmarried, or divorced in all their relationships. Transmitting this fruit — the fruit of the Spirit — to other people either in real Great Commission terms via the Gospel, or as we raise children in Christian community (with Christian community) is what fruitfulness looks like. Children brought up in the knowledge of the Gospel might be a product of Christian marriage, but they are not its ends. Christlikeness is the end goal in every relationship for every Christian. More fruit of the Spirit produced by more lives being restored to Christ is what ‘offspring’ looks like. Everything Paul says about Christian marriage in Ephesians 5 (and about all other relationships) comes through the interpretive grid of Ephesians 5:1-2 (and Paul’s picture of maturity/fruitfulness in Ephesians 4).

Follow God’s example,therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” — Ephesians 5:1-2

This is at the heart of what it means to bear God’s image again as we’re transformed into the image of Christ. To imitate him. And then to make disciples. That’s the goal of the Great Commission, which includes Christian parenting as we disciple our children.  Paul talks a whole lot about marriage in Ephesians 5. He says nothing about children but a lot about marriage reflecting who God is, and reflecting unity.

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—  for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. — Ephesians 5:29-33

The end goal of marriage is unity that reflects the Gospel. Which isn’t that different to our end goal as humans. And our highest calling.

This piece has a wonky view of our ‘telos’ as humans

Hood jumps straight from fruitfulness to procreation. A legitimate step in the Old Testament when God’s people were breeding themselves into existence. Hood holds the Great Commission and what he calls Christ’s “first great commission” as separate, not as related.  This piece confuses ends, means, and purpose of marriage – it takes the fruit and obscures the trees.

Hood argues that having children is the very purpose of our existence — not just of marriage — and because of this marriage is part of the purpose of our humanity. The goal of our humanity is, then, much like the goal posited by evolution; the survival of the (Christian) species. And we achieve this by giving birth to lots of ‘Godly seed’…What damaging piffle. His view of humanity rules out such luminaries as Jesus and Paul.

“Marriage exists for this. Male and female exist for this (Gen 1:27). In the next age, maleness, femaleness, and marriage, won’t matter (Mt 22:30). In this age, God says “procreate”, and therefore there is “one-flesh” marriage”… If you’re male or female today , be intentional about both marriage and children… Women of the church need to step up. If God has called you to be a wife and mother —99% of women — don’t stoop to only being a CEO. You can be celibate for the Kingdom, but not for your career. Make career decisions that fit with motherhood, not vice versa. Motherhood is the goal – “she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15). A Christian woman fulfils God’s plan and lives out her salvation by being a mother.” — Jared Hood

This is perhaps the most damaging argument I’ve ever read under the label Presbyterian. It is pastorally deadly. It is practically impossible. It is unloving and dangerous. It is folly dressed up as wisdom. It needs to be challenged at every turn.

Male and female exist to procreate? Male and female exist to reflect the image of God. Childbearing may or may not be part of this. Male and female exist to bear the image of God together, and as individuals. Whatever our calling. Do we really believe 1 Corinthians 7? That, according to Paul, singleness can be desirable and good? What damaging and terrible advice given in the guise of rigourous theological thought and exegesis. This isn’t just about countering a worldly idolatry of career, which infects our culture, this is poison. This is pastoral poison for every infertile man or woman who knows of their condition before marriage, it is poison for the couples working through fertility issues, it is poison for long term singles who have remained pure and faithful, pursuing chastity and thus childlessness above all other options, I have no idea where he pulled the 99% figure from, perhaps from the days when marriages were arranged in order to secure dowries and land deals. It is horrific. A car crash. And must be called out for what it is.

The goal of Christian living — male or female — is Christlikeness. Christlikeness is how we now bear God’s image, which flows through to how we understand fruitfulness and why the ‘first commission’ leads into the Great Commission rather than being separate. Fruitfulness is Christlikeness. Or as childless Paul puts it…

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:29-30

What’s interesting is that Romans 8 is much more Presbyterian (or Presbyterianism is much more, officially, closely aligned with Romans 8). Our purpose, ultimately, is to be glorifiers, as God transforms us to reflect who he is, by his Spirit, as his children. Or as the official Presbyterian catechism — a summary of our beliefs — puts it, in question and answer form:

What is the chief end of mankind?
A. Mankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

This leads to fruitfulness, and this too is us bearing God’s image.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. — Galatians 5:22-24

Hood doesn’t even  offer  a terribly compelling reading of Genesis apart from our telos as we see it in Jesus, he says (or sees) nothing of how fruitfulness might be tied to being a community of people who represent God. People are two whole ‘ones’, not two halves, before they become one. People must be able to bear God’s image and work towards collective human fruitfulness before marriage, Abel, a childless bloke, somehow found favour in God’s eyes in Genesis 4 via his display of sacrificial love for God.

The goal of marriage is Christlikeness. The goal of singleness is Christlikeness. The goal of personhood is Christlikeness. Fruitfulness is Christlikeness.

This piece has a wonky view of masculinity and femininity

This piece assumes some pretty damaging social norms about what men and women should be doing in order to grow up being ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ — it totally fails to grapple with all our norms being essentially constructed, the Biblical manhood he pines for looks nothing like the manhood of the Ancient Near East, and everything like the manhood of the pre-enlightenment west. Our assumptions about gender are almost always constructed from a particular human culture, and you’re probably in trouble if you’re trying to construct them from the Ancient Near East anyway, unless you want to somehow argue that you should force a daughter to marry her rapist, which made a little more cultural sense in a time where marriage was necessary for financial sustainability and rape essentially ruled out marriage. The Gospel, more than anything else, has shaped the way gender works for goodness and equality rather than curse and brokenness. There’s a reason we don’t let the ministers of our churches act like King David, discarding one wife, while murdering someone else to take his…

“Women spend 13 or more years in education learning to be CEOs and Senior Counsels, not learning to be mums. Men learn to remain boys into their late 20s, with Playstations, picture story books (sorry, “graphic novels”) and the juvenility of internet pornography… Education is great, but don’t use it to delay growing up. University is not compulsory, or even Years 11 and 12. Aim for marriage. To get the woman you’ve chosen to love down the aisle you’re going to need a life-plan to support her and your children… Women need mothercraft skills — there’s a conference topic or two. Mothers need playgroups. Can older women help (Titus 2:3)? Men need a church culture that says the time for onesies and superhero T-shirts is over.” — Jared Hood

I read this last bit to a young bloke at church who is delaying his education to take a gap year — serving our youth. He was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I’m sorry, but this is such a terrible view of art and gaming, and education that will leave people ill-equipped to even come close to engaging in the Great Commission with people who enjoy these pastimes. Probably the only thing I thought was agreeable in the whole piece was his labelling pornography as juvenile.

Honestly. I have two daughters and a son. I want singleness to be a plausible calling for them if that’s what following Jesus calls them to do. I don’t want them marrying deadbeats. I don’t want them marrying for the sake of marriage because someone tells them it’s God’s plan for their life. I don’t want them marrying non-Christians (because, for any non-Christian readers, the love of Jesus is the example I wish to be at the heart of her marriage, and what I hope we manage to pass on as parents). I want them to stay faithful and believe that Christlikeness is their goal, and is more rewarding and important than sex and procreation. I want them to be able to be happily single if need be, and to be trained and equipped to make a significant difference in the world. CEO or otherwise. I also want them to be able to engage with art and culture with discernment rather than fear, and to be able to use the universal human longings and desires that art — including graphic novels, games, and superhero stories — express to do that.

 This piece has a wonky view of the world and how God works in it

“We don’t know what Australia will decide in the promised plebiscite. We do know this: Christendom is dead. We mourn its demise. The darkness is well advanced… In the days after the US Supreme Court decision [about Same Sex Marriage], I was heard to joke: “At least we can outbreed them.” I wasn’t really joking. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, sees a society fit for judgment and she does something about it. She gives her son to the Lord, to be the leader that Israel needed, to be a Nazirite like powerful Samson (1:11). On more levels than one, “children” is the response to same sex marriage. The Christian strategy is family. ” — Jared Hood

What the?

No wait.

What the?

As though we can control how our kids turn out (though Hood makes some suggestions about how to do that…

“When enrolling children in school, don’t ask the principal, “how many of your students go on to university?” Ask “how many students survive your school with their faith intact?” and “how many thrive at your school in the fear and admonition of the Lord?” — Jared Hood

It feels like, from start to finish, this is Hood’s aim, to respond to the shifting of society by positing this strategy. Outbreed ’em. As though this is how God works. As though it is his means for bringing change in the world. Procreate.

Here’s how God brings change to the world — a theme and method so sorely lacking in Hood’s graceless and destructive piece. This is also the path to the sort of righteousness Hood seems to crave… and this is what I’ll be teaching my kids is the path to real humanity, their purpose, the thing they’re to pass on in this world, in all their relationships, if they want to bring change.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” — Romans 1:16-17

The darkness is winning. Is it? Was Christendom which was heavy on morality light on Jesus really all its cracked up to be? Is the answer to have lots of kids, or to start living like kids. God’s kids? Imitating our big brother?

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness,righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. — Ephesians 4:8-11

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On Fry, Brand, and Jesus: Why two comedians have a laughable view of God

If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.

Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.

Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.

In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5

He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18

I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.

There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.

Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.

Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.

Here’s his answer.

Here are some of the highlights…

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.

The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.

The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28

If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.

We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.

The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.

Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.

There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)

Fry says, of Jesus:

“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”

So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.

Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…

“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”

The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…

But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).

Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).

His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11

An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12

In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4

A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15

Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.

Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.

“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”

Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.

“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”

He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.

“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”

Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.

“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”

Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.

“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”

If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.

But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18

Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.

John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11 

This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.

What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24

I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.

If only I had a British accent.

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Lance Armstrong, Me and the “perfect story” of redemption

Lance Armstrong has confessed and apologised, which, as we all know, is the first step to a public redemption. He did so with what seemed like as much genuine contrition as possible for somebody who has been pretty much tarnished as a pathological liar – it’s a classic paradox.

He did it to Oprah, who I guess is the secular religion of the public self’s closest thing to both a deity and a confessional…

I can’t help but feel like calling Lance Armstrong “Al” such is the resonance with the classic Paul Simon song – if only his drugs were administered by a roly-poly little bat faced girl…


Image Credit: BBC, Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferrari, Bat-faced? Maybe. He denies being the administrator of the doping campaign anyway…

The song begins at where Armstrong is now…

“The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard”

He’s also hoping the public will forget about all of this… because of our short little spans of attention… but here’s pretty much the dilemma we face…

“Who’ll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone
He ducked back down the alley
With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
All along along
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations”

Armstrong really does risk falling from being the character at the centre of a perfect story – which was part of his rationale for cheating – to being a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard of broken and forgotten men. Especially because the media does enjoy destroying idols almost as much as they enjoy building them up – that’s the celebrity news cycle.

Lance and the broken “perfect story”

Here’s a bit of the transcript

You were defiant, you called other people liars.

“I understand that. And while I lived through this process, especially the last two years, one year, six months, two, three months, I know the truth. The truth isn’t what was out there. The truth isn’t what I said, and now it’s gone – this story was so perfect for so long. And I mean that, as I try to take myself out of the situation and I look at it. You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage, you have children. I mean, it’s just this mythic perfect story, and it wasn’t true.

Was it hard to live up to that picture that was created?

“Impossible. Certainly I’m a flawed character, as I well know, and I couldn’t do that. But what we see now and what’s out there now.

But didn’t you help paint that picture?

“Of course, I did. And a lot of people did. All the fault and all the blame here falls on me. But behind that picture and behind that story is momentum. Whether it’s fans or whether it’s the media, it just gets going. And I lost myself in all of that. I’m sure there would be other people that couldn’t handle it, but I certainly couldn’t handle it, and I was used to controlling everything in my life. I controlled every outcome in my life.

Lance, and Me

I can relate to that. In a lot of ways I am like Lance Armstrong. I’m not really interested in throwing stones at him – in a way I’m guilty for the standards he set for himself. I want my sporting idols to go harder, faster, stronger, and for longer.

I think this bit, where he talks a little bit about his state of mind as he cheated, is honest, and scary – but it’s scary because I can completely relate.

Was it a big deal to you, did it feel wrong?

“No. Scary.”

It did not even feel wrong?

“No. Even scarier.”

Did you feel bad about it?

“No. The scariest.”

Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?

“At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

But you knew that you were held to a higher standard. You’re Lance Armstrong.

“I knew that, and of course hindsight is perfect. I know it a thousand times more now. I didn’t know what I had. Look at the fallout.”

What do you mean by you ‘didn’t know’? I don’t think people will understand what you’re saying. When you and I met a week ago you didn’t think it was that big? How could you not?

“I see the anger in people, betrayal, it’s all there. People who believed in me and supported me and they have every right to feel betrayed and it’s my fault and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologise to people.”

I am Lance Armstrong. I am a wretch – a wretch who wants to be the center of attention. We all are. We all want to be characters in the perfect story, but we’re all deeply flawed.

Lance and Me and the perfect story of redemption

But Lance Armstrong is wrong – he can’t earn redemption – he can’t earn anything back. And neither can we. We’re all accountable – not to the media, not to Oprah – but to the real God. The God who created us. The God who humanity turned on.

The God who authors the perfect story. The one perfect story. The only perfect story.

It’s the perfect story of redemption.

The perfect story of overcoming those flaws.

The perfect story with the perfect character at its centre.

And it’s this perfect story that, to continue the Paul Simon motif – might help Lance Armstrong see “angels in the architecture” it might see him “spinning in infinity” and all it takes – for us to see Graceland (to borrow from another song) – is to say “amen and hallelujah” – I could really spin this out a bit longer with some hackneyed line about Jesus being our bodyguard, who doesn’t always stop us getting into trouble – but gets us out of it… but the story is better than that.

I am Lance Armstrong. I am human. I know what it is to not do the things that I want to do – I have no doubt that when Lance Armstrong says he wishes with hindsight that he’d fought against the culture, rather than pretending to when Hollywood came calling (see his cameo in Dodgeball)… because to err is human… To want to do right is human. That’s what Paul expresses in Romans 7 – our natural state is to be caught up in the tension between wanting to do right, and desperately wanting to paint ourselves as perfect people by putting ourselves on a bit of a pedestal – serving our flesh…

19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.

This is what it means to be human. We’re all made in God’s image – we’re all at least partly wired to do good things, which creates a tension because our very nature, tainted by the effect of sin, means that we can’t.

We can’t earn our redemption – because this is a pretty vicious cycle. And Paul sums up the good news like this, in the same chapter…

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The best part of the story, I reckon, is that we’re not just rescued – we’re perfected. By centering our story around Jesus, rather than ourselves, we start to become part of the greatest perfect story. The gospel really is the best story. It’s a redemption story.

It’s a story that unravels the human condition – the human condition that lead Lance to drugs, and leads us to all sorts of bad stuff – that all changes. And the notion of the “good life” and the “perfect story” changes too – because that tension at the heart of humanity starts to disappear. That’s where Paul goes in chapter 8…

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

In Jesus we become part of God’s purpose – and achieve something greater than the sort of unblemished humanity that was around when we were just run of the mill “children of God” when humanity was created. We’re now being “conformed” to the image of Jesus. We have a role model – one who’ll stick around. And we are being made like our role model – the perfect role model. We’re redeemed – and we’ll be perfected, or glorified… We’re not faced with the prospect of being a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard – we’re loved, in three dimensions, by the God who calls us his children.

That’s a heaps better redemption story than anything Oprah offers.

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Doug Green on Genesis – part 2

More notes from Doug Green… including some more speculative stuff (by his own admission) that was pretty thought provoking. You’ll notice that in order to convey the essence of some sort of characteristic Doug would often add “ness” to the end of a word, and occasionally negate that with an “un”… my spellcheck didn’t really like that so much…

Evangelicals have a low view of what it means to be human even before we introduce the subject of sin. In our unfallen condition we were like God as a son is like his father.

The Fall Stuff – less pretty, and a little more speculative…

We know how the story in Genesis 3 transpires – the “king and the queen” reject their undergodness. The consequences of Adam’s sin have been understood conventionally in expressions like the WCF.

Five things that happened in the fall:

  1. Exile from God’s presence – there’s an interesting connection between Israel’s story and Adam’s story. Adam and Eve are tossed from the garden – which opens up an interesting insight into the human condition – do we live in a perennial state of homelessness. Sin has rendered us spiritually homeless and homesick. If we’re honest with ourselves even our experiences of being at “home” – family, tribal connections etc – are a longing for a deep feeling of home. Why does it feel so good to be “home”… Psalm 37 – we live out our days in a foreign land… there’s an interesting “human condition as homelessness” notion at play. Fulfillment is found in coming home to God. So Israel, when they return from exile, rebuild the temple. The Prodigal Son is a great New Testament example. Home and family is one of the new gods of Australian culture. But it’s a god destined for failure because humans (and thus families) are sinful.
  2. The king is dethroned and the son loses his inheritance – the language is of dethronement, of being cast back into humanity. The dethroned king is also the disinherited son (another link to the Prodigal Son – the father is willing to restore the disinherited).
  3. No longer “like one of us” – take this with a grain of salt… By sinning the first humans fell from the almost godlike status – Genesis 3:22 in the NIV is typical of the received tradition “behold, the man has become like one of us” – it seems to be saying that it was in the fall that we became like God. Which seems to completely contradict this position. Was the serpent telling the truth? When he said “you will become like God” – the Hebrew could be equally translated in the past tense – what he once was – “behold, the man was like one of us, he used to know good and evil. But now he is no longer…” This would be consistent with Genesis 1 – where humanity was created like God. That should have been Eve’s response to the serpent when he said “you will be like God” – “but we already are”… now, because of the fall they’re no longer entitled to the life of the Gods. In Doug’s opinion the serpent tricked both Eve and the translators of Genesis. If this interpretation is correct then the gospel story – the redemption – can be understood as taking us back to being like God. If this is correct then not only did humanity used to be like the heavenly beings but also that status was essential for understanding the difference between good and evil. Everything, under the one word torah, was good – other than disobeying and doing the one thing that God has prohibited. Because they had this “law” they were able to discern between good and evil. What do Adam and Eve have after the fall that would fit into the category of now knowing good and evil?
  4. After the fall we lose our moral compass and don’t think straight anymore. So. If this interpretation is correct – before the fall, Adam and Eve were like God and able to pick the difference between good and evil. The command gave them the guideline for making this distinction. The serpent lies. They already know.  Eve’s response should have been “you’re a liar.” The knowledge of good and evil is something they lose. That is compromised. As a result of the fall. This is part of humanity’s problem – we call good evil, and evil good [ed note – cf Romans 1]. Moral confusion, far from being marks of the true humanity, is a mark of fallen humanity. One dimension of the gospel then will be that through the Spirit, and union with Christ, will realign our moral compass and restore us to full humanity. The sinful nature has damaged our ability to think straight. Similar picture with Jesus and the demoniac – who is insane, and once Jesus heals him, he sits at his feet “in his right mind”…
  5. It results in the loss or reduction of our original glory – “the Lord God made garments of skin” – traditionally understood as requiring an animal sacrifice (which has been read in as atonement). God’s clothing of Adam and Eve is a symbolic act of changing their cultural status. A big deal in ancient culture – clothing carries symbolism of a change of status (white wedding dress). Clothing the man in skins may be the Lord identifying them with the animals. They become more like animals than gods. They’ve lost their godlike status and their new status is more like the animals. A stretch. Sure. But so is the atonement reading. Daniel 4 – one of the consequences was being dethroned as king, throughout the OT there are stories of kings being dethroned that are framed as a retelling of the Adam story. When you read them this way they can give us some insight into the human condition. So the story of Nebuchadnezzar is an example – what do you do when you have worldwide dominion? You wander around looking at what you’ve done – this is a picture of a king who thinks he rules the world. It’s arrogance and hubris. The words are still on his lips when a voice comes from heaven – “your royal authority has been taken from you” – echoing Adam’s dethronement. You will be “exiled from people” and will “live with the wild animals” until he recognises that he is not God. The description of Nebuchadnezzar is beastly – he has become an animal. He moves from the pinnacle of human experience, glorifying in his achievements to the humiliating state of “an animal” – this is the human story. We’ve moved from royalty to being beastly. Nebuchadnezzar’s redemtion is a gospel story – his sanity is restored, he praises the most high, he puts himself under God’s authority, he ends up in a better place (good, bad, better – the redemption cycle). Redeemed humanity is elevated from a beastly humanity to a humanity that exercises dominion – back to where we should be, but possibly in a better place than we began in. The transformation comes when we recognise God as God. True humanity will rule creation, rather than being a ruled over creature, only when we recognise God. Nebuchadnezzar “my knowledge, my understanding, returned to me” as a result of submitting. Sin makes us insane. The good news is that Christ makes us sane.

Romans 3:23 – because we’ve sinned we now fall short of the glory of God that attached to us as unfallen humans (rather than being a case of missing God’s standard of perfection). Psalm 8 – for all have sinned and we no longer have our heavenly nature. We are “falling short” humans.