Easter Day Baptism, Naughty Kids and Motherwell FC

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Romans 6:3-4

In baptism, we experience and partake in something extraordinary.
It is the belief and practise of a Church to baptise, to dunk, to plunge people into water, whilst promises are made.
Extraordinary yes! Weird? Certainly.
What makes rational adults choose to do such a brazenly embarrassing thing? In front of their friends and family too! In front of witnesses!

Not only is Easter Day the high point of the Christian calendar, but Baptism is the high point of human experience.
It is no accident that without water there can be no life.
It is not a qwerk of creation that water is the key to life.
It is not by accident that Jesus links Himself with Living Water (Jn 7:24).

So what does this all mean? We have all heard of baptism before, some have been done themselves; some have seen many baptisms and others have only seen and heard what the TV or the papers have said.

Christianity is about water; It is about Baptism. Most of our lives we try to order and control ourselves. We try to look good, stay dry; as our English proverb goes, we try to ‘keep our heads above water.’

Baptism

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The Flight into Egypt

Having recently seen the exhibition at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, London, my imagination was fired by the brilliance of the poetry of Malcolm Guite, that brought to life the excellently ordinary paintings by Adam Boulter.

The words and paintings also bring to life the power of God’s Word as it takes these far too familiar accounts and recasts them in genuinely powerful and contemporary ways, attempting to announce the arrival of God the Son, incarnate, yet forever unsafe in a violent and tempting world.

Or those other encounters with God in the Old and New Testaments – this is the God who pursues us, whether in wrestling, in blinding light, in silence or temptation.  The wilderness is the crucible, and I just wonder why our allegedly sophisticated Western world will do anything to avoid this barrenness of wilderness.  Ironically, our techno-utopias are in fact a kind of wilderness of soul, and I suspect that in this barren place of techno-babble, this app-fuelled tom-foolery, God will meet with us here too in quite unexpected ways.

Here’s one poem by Malcolm.

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Atheists Take Note (this Easter)…

Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter

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This is a re-post of Dr John Dickson’s excellent challenge to Atheists to up their game in their critique of Christianity:

There is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.

Atheists should drop their easily dismissed scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity, and instead quiz believers about Old Testament violence and hell, writes John Dickson.

As an intellectual movement, Christianity has a head start on atheism. So it’s only natural that believers would find some of the current arguments against God less than satisfying.

In the interests of a more robust debate this Easter, I (Dr John Dickson) want to offer my tips for atheists wanting to make a dent in the Faith. I’ve got some advice on arguments that should be dropped and some admissions about where Christians are vulnerable.

Tip #1. Dip into Christianity’s intellectual tradition

This is the 1,984th Easter since 7 April AD 30, the widely accepted date among historians for the crucifixion of Jesus (the 1,981st if you find the arguments for 3 April AD 33 persuasive). Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.

My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents – Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf – popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, “Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!”

Tip #2. Notice how believers use the word ‘faith’

One of the things that becomes apparent in serious Christian literature is that no one uses ‘faith’ in the sense of believing things without reasons. That might be Richard Dawkins’ preferred definition – except when he was publicly asked by Oxford’s Professor John Lennox whether he had ‘faith’ in his lovely wife – but it is important to know that in theology ‘faith’ always means personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds. I think God is real for philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons. Only on the basis of my reasoned conviction can I then trust God – have faith in him – in the sense meant in theology.

Tip #3. Appreciate the status of 6-Day Creationism

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.

Tip #4. Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps

One slightly annoying feature of New Atheism is the constant claim that believers invoke God as an explanation of the ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of the universe: as we fill in the gaps with more science, God disappears. Even as thoughtful a man as Lawrence Kraus, a noted physicist, did this just last month on national radio following new evidence of the earliest moments of the Big Bang.

But the god-of-the-gaps is an invention of atheists. Serious theists have always welcomed explanations of the mechanics of the universe as further indications of the rational order of reality and therefore of the presence of a Mind behind reality. Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer.

Tip #5. “Atheists just go one god more” is a joke, not an argument

I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go ‘one god more’. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.

Tip #6. Claims that Christianity is social ‘poison’ backfire

Moving from science and philosophy to sociology, I regard New Atheism’s “religion poisons everything” argument as perhaps its greatest faux pas. Not just because it is obviously untrue but because anyone who has entertained the idea and then bumped into an actual Christian community will quickly wonder what other fabrications Hitchens and Dawkins have spun.

I don’t just mean that anyone who dips into Christian history will discover that the violence of Christendom is dwarfed by the bloodshed of non-religious and irreligious conflicts. I mean that those who find themselves, or their loved ones, in genuine need in this country are very, very likely to become the beneficiaries of direct and indirect Christian compassion. The faithful account for an inordinate amount of “volunteering hours” in Australia, they give blood at higher-than-normal rates, and 18 of the nation’s 25 largest charities are Christian organisations. This doesn’t make Christians better than atheists, but it puts the lie to the claim that they’re worse.

Tip #7. Concede that Jesus lived, then argue about the details

Nearly 10 years after Richard Dawkins says that “a serious historical case” can be made that Jesus “never lived” (even if he admits that his existence is probable). It is astonishing to me that some atheists haven’t caught up with the fact that this was always a nonsense statement. Even the man Dawkins cites at this point, GA Wells (a professor of German language, not a historian), published his own change of mind right about the time The God Delusion came out.

New Atheists should accept the academic reality that the vast majority of specialists in secular universities throughout the world consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus lived, taught, gained a reputation as a healer, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and was soon heralded by his followers as the resurrected Messiah. Unless sceptics can begin their arguments from this academic baseline, they are the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise – unwilling to accept the scholarly mainstream over their metaphysical commitments.

Tip #8. Persuasion involves three factors

Aristotle was the first to point out that persuasion occurs through three factors: intellectual (logos), psychological (pathos), and social or ethical (ethos). People rarely change their minds merely on account of objective evidence. They usually need to feel the personal relevance and impact of a claim, and they also must feel that the source of the claim – whether a scientist or a priest – is trustworthy.

Christians frequently admit that their convictions developed under the influence of all three elements. When sceptics, however, insist that their unbelief is based solely on ‘evidence’, they appear one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness. They would do better to figure out how to incorporate their evidence within the broader context of its personal relevance and credibility. I think this is why Alain de Botton is a far more persuasive atheist (for thoughtful folk) than Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus. It is also why churches attract more enquirers than the local sceptics club.

Tip #9. Ask us about Old Testament violence

I promised to highlight vulnerabilities of the Christian Faith. Here are two.

Most thoughtful Christians find it difficult to reconcile the loving, self-sacrificial presentation of God in the New Testament with the seemingly harsh and violent portrayals of divinity in the Old Testament. I am not endorsing Richard Dawkins’ attempts in chapter 7 of The God Delusion. There he mistakenly includes stories that the Old Testament itself holds up as counter examples of true piety. But there is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.

I am not sure this line of argument has the power to undo Christian convictions entirely. I, for one, feel that the lines of evidence pointing to God’s self-disclosure in Christ are so robust that I am able to ponder the inconsistencies in the Old Testament without chucking in the Faith. Still, I reckon this is one line of scrutiny Christians haven’t yet fully answered.

Tip #10. Press us on hell and judgment

Questions can also be raised about God’s fairness with the world. I don’t mean the problem of evil and suffering: philosophers seem to regard that argument as a ‘draw’. I am talking about how Christians can, on the one hand, affirm God’s costly love in Jesus Christ and, yet, on the other, maintain Christ’s equally clear message that those who refuse the Creator will face eternal judgment. If God is so eager for our friendship that he would enter our world, share our humanity, and bear our punishment on the cross, how could he feel it is appropriate to send anyone to endless judgment?

This is a peculiar problem of the Christian gospel. If God were principally holy and righteous, and only occasionally magnanimous in special circumstances, we wouldn’t be shocked by final judgment. But it is precisely because Jesus described God as a Father rushing to embrace and kiss the returning ‘prodigal’ that Christians wonder how to hold this in tension with warnings of hell and judgment.

Again, I’m not giving up on classical Christianity because of this internally generated dilemma, but I admit to feeling squeamish about it, and I secretly hope atheists in my audiences don’t think to ask me about it.

***

I doubt there are any strong scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity. Most of those in current circulation are nowhere near as persuasive as New Atheism imagines. Contemporary sceptics would do well to drop them. Paradoxically, I do think Christianity is vulnerable at precisely the points of its own emphases. Its insistence on love, humility, and non-violence is what makes the Old Testament seem inconsistent. Its claim that God “loves us to death” (literally) creates the dilemma of its teaching about final judgment. Pressing Christians on this inner logic of the cross of Christ will make for a very interesting debate, I am sure. Believers may have decent answers, but at least you’ll be touching a truly raw nerve of the Easter Faith.

Dr John Dickson is an author and historian, and a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

 

Postscript:

In a separate “incident” within this whole debate, David Bentley Hart recently produced a scintilating reply to Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker that kind of makes the point of this post – the debate, if you can call it that, between materialists/atheists and those of faith.  Hart writes,

“Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. . . . Precisely how does materialism (which is just a metaphysical postulate, of extremely dubious logical coherence) entail exclusive ownership of scientific knowledge?”

And as a final foray on my part into Hart’s reply, he lays out as plain as he can, why we have this horrendous if not infantile situaltion today,

“The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter.”

I encourage you to read Gopnik’s post and Hart’s response – it is breathtaking and brutal!!  You can feel Hart’s irritation even if he doesn’t really get out of theological first gear!

Will The Real Christianity Please Stand Up

Two people in two separate situations this week asked me what a Christian believes (I know two is hardly revival but still)!

Both were coming from different places in this regard, both had an axe to grind regarding institutional Christianity, something which, to their great shock and confusion, I agreed with (by-and-large).

three-people-sharing-a-meal-1885A wonderful sketch of three people eating (c) wikiart.org

But where they both responded in a positive way, was in their own ignorance of actual confessing Christianity, and all its glorious forms and versions (and some inglorious) in 2000 years of Church History.  I did refrain from giving a snap-shot of this history, but hopefully this just added some thirst-inducing salt to the wells of curiosity that was now open to them.

As a Baptist (by theological conviction), it will come as no surprise that the Anabaptist tradition has had a significant influence on me.  What I talked through with my two new friends was the 7 Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network, a statement of faith that is as Biblically Christian as I’ve found anywhere, and as defiant against almost all that we inherently associate with much of contemporary Christianity.

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Moltmann and the Annihilation of Hell

Jurgen Moltmann in his foreward of Nicholas Ansell’s The Annihilation of Hell – Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann:

20150213_200619“A foreward is not an afterward and also not a critical review.  A foreward should open the door and point out the worth of a book so that it can be properly read and discussed.  Nicholas Ansell’s book on The Annihilation of Hell and Universal Salvation is so far-reaching and profound a theological and philosophical work that a brief foreward can’t really do it justice.  I’ll limit myself here to some biographical references, a few factual observations, and then an attempt to bring the theology of grace and the theology of faith into a theological dialogue.

Any theology of grace will be oriented for God’s sake to the universal triumph of grace.  Any theology of faith, however, will start from the human decision of faith and will result in the separation of believers from unbelievers.  The universalism of salvation, on the one hand, and the particularism of faith on the other hand, are on two different levels.  What is important is to closely connect them.

Since my theology studies in Gottingen, where I wrote my dissertation in 1952 on the “hypothetical universalism” of the Calvinist theologian Moyse Amyraut, who taught at the theological Academy of Saumer in the 17th century, the idea of universalism has not let go of me.  Amyraut’s idea, that the universal offer of grace is merely hypothetical until faith grasps it, I considered inadequate.  Then I read Karl Barth’s new doctrine of election which appeared in his Church Dogmatics 2/2 and became convinced by his theology of the cross:  On the cross of Christ, God took the guilt of sinners upon himself in order to give them his gift of grace.  I continued to think through this dialectical universalism of salvation and found in Christ’s resurrection from the dead the beginning of the destruction of death and thereby “the annihilation of Hell.”  Many Easter hymns in the German Lutheran hymnal celebrate the “destruction of Hell” by means of Christ’s descent into Hell and resurrection from Hell.  In the Orthodox Easter liturgy, the destruction of Hell through Christ is also celebrated.  Those who descend into Hell should “abandon all hope” according to Dante.  But the Christ who descended into Hell is the “hope of the hopeless” (spes desperatis).

I then took up an old desire of Karl Barth and Helmut Gollwitzer, namely to reform the doctrine of the LAst Judgment from the perspective of the crucified one who will come to judge the living and the dead.  Here I had the Old Testament notion of “divine judging” for help.  According to Psalm 96, God will come to judge the earth, and the earth will rejoice and the fields will make merry.  In this instance, “judge” means raise up, set straight, heal, and bring to life.  How could it be otherwise in the Christian anticipation of God’s Final Judgment and coming kingdom!  In fact the so-called “Final Judgment” is penultimate; what is truly final is the new, eternal creation in which God becomes “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

At this point another thought came to me:  with the forgiveness of sins and the overcoming of death, God is concerned primarily with the expulsion of the godless powers of evil, of sin, of death, and of Hell from his beloved creation.  Isn’t our question as to whether all or only a few will be saved not an anthropocentric and in many cases even a selfish one?  For God, it is about God’s glorification of all his creatures.  The salvation of the new humanity is only a part of this.  If we look to the glory of God, then the universalism and particularism of human salvation are relativised.  The “annihilation of Hell” is an action of the cosmic Christ, whose reign is universal.  “Universal salvation” is only the human part of the “salvation of the universe.”

I must stop here, since I’m only writing a forward.  But you can see how stimulating this study by Nicholas Ansell has been for me.  I hope the same holds true for his other readers.  There is much to be gained by considering this work and then thinking further on one’s own.”

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Be the Light

I was walking the dogs recently and came across this lamp-post, an unusual vision that stopped me in my tracks. It is clearly an older light, probably not even working, neglected and almost over-run with, what my kids used to call “nature”!

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It reminded me of two possibilities for a believer in Christ:

First, positively, that it doesn’t matter what happens throughout your life, where you are placed, the one thing a Christian does is shine!  The weeds of nature may wrap around you with their lies and choking restrictions, but the Christian just keeps shining.

Jesus called His followers the “light of the world” in Matthew 5:14.  Paul urges the Christians at Philippi to “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).  And John encourages an “abiding in the light” as he writes “the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

20150124_094002-1-3Second, negatively!  The street light had succumbed to the cares of the world.  The light wasn’t shining (admittedly is was day time – you shrewd reader)!  It looked tired and weary amidst a crooked and perverse generation, to use Paul’s words from Philippians.

Sometimes as Christians we can succumb.  The choking lies of Satan become too much, even when the vile serpent quotes Scripture at us as he did to Jesus in the wilderness, we know that in doing so he, the father of lies, knows the Bible better than we do.  And so we believe his lies, and the weeds choke, and our guilt condemns.

Maybe our light flickers, with degrees of brightness.  That’s surely a more realistic picture of the Christian life, not quite “dimmer-switch Christianity”, but not far off.  Our mood or whatever transient event that shapes our mood is the controller on the dimmer-switch of our life and determines our level of faith, our ability to shine, our sheer pressing in to Christ despite the garbage that grows around and on us.

Jesus called His followers the light of the world because He is the Light of the world.  Light just is, and darkness doesn’t stand a chance in the presense of light.

Just as a light on a hill cannot be hidden, the Light of the world on the hill of Calvary cannot be hidden.  Even in death and buried in a tomb, the Light is working to bring about a resurrection that will transform everything.

I guess for me, the challenge of this old lamp was a reminder that the Gospel will always have enemies and opponents.  Light exposes darkness no matter how lovingly we do it.  I am called to shine!

In one sense, it simply doesn’t matter what grows all over it, just don’t let it be because your light has gone out.  “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Jesus is the Light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine!