Mark 8.27-end: The quest for identity

The New Testament and Jesus in particular have a remarkable way of addressing contemporary issues.

Take the quest for identity. The question “Who am I?” seems to occupy more of our time and energy than ever before. And the question itself is much more complex than it used to be. Is your identity something you’re given, something you have to discover or something you’re free to construct? Or a mixture of all three?

We define ourselves in so many different ways. You can look inside and seeing what’s there. How do I feel? What do I want? What do I want to achieve? What are my gifts or talents? What is my sexuality? You can look to the personality tests such as Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram. You can look to the stars and the planets for light on who you are. You can look at where you belong – your tribe, your town or village, your sports club, your old school, your profession. You can look at the key relationships in your life and define yourself by how you fit into a family or a community. You can look at what you do, your job, your calling, your career. The range of choice is bewildering.

Jesus asks his disciples to reflect on his identity. What is the word on the street about who he is? And who do they think he is? The question is addressed to us too. Who do we think Jesus is? Once we’ve got that straight then the way is open for us to be told who we are. This is explicit in Matthew’s version of this episode, where Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is immediately followed by Jesus telling him:

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

Matthew 16.18)

We are who we are in relation to our Creator and Redeemer. When you think about it, this makes good sense and cuts through a lot of potential confusion and frustration. How else should we be defined but by the One who made us in the first place? Not only that, but the One who loved us enough to give his life for our life.

Knowing the identity of Jesus is the first step. But there is more to come. This is the half-way point in Jesus’ ministry. From now on the journey to the cross begins. Now that they know who Jesus is, the disciples can begin to get their heads round his call to die for the sins of the world and what that will mean for them. Jesus is very clear about that:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.

Mark 8.34-35

The word “life” here is the Greek word psychē, meaning “soul” or “life”. I reckon it could equally be translated “self” or “identity”. Jesus is telling us that we can only find who we really are when we commit ourselves to following him and are prepared to deny ourselves. The only way to life is through death, through letting go of whatever distorted sense of self we have acquired and allowing God to shape us into the person he always intended we should be. We only have one life/soul and left to ourselves we will make a mess of it (even if we become rich, famous and powerful along the way).

What does it mean to deny yourself? Here is one example: Paul urged the Christians in Rome to learn

 …not to please [themselves]. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself…

Romans 15.2f

In denying ourselves we follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself. And in so doing we begin to find ourselves in a new way.

Oliver O’Donovan, formerly Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, wrote:

If Christianity has a saving message to speak to human beings, it must surely be, ‘You may be free from the constraints of your identities.’

quoted in David Bennett, A War of Loves

Mark 7.24-end: Two Healings

The Gospel passage for this coming Sunday tells the story of two people healed by Jesus: the demon-afflicted daughter of a woman from Tyre and a deaf mute person from the region of the Decapolis.

Putting the two accounts side by side tells us quite a lot about Jesus’ healing ministry and, by extension, about how healing ministry might look today.

The first thing I notice is that in both cases Jesus is outside or on the boundary of the chosen people. Tyre is pagan country and the New Testament strongly suggests that the Decapolis had a mainly Gentile population. Healing often works most easily on the frontline, where the gospel is breaking new ground. Among the people of God it can be much more difficult: in Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, he could do “no mighty work” (Mark 6.5). Christians often get disillusioned about the possibilities of healing ministry because they see such meagre results within the church community. Sometimes the answer is to get out and about and see what might happen with unbelievers.

Then I notice how different the two healings are. The demonised daughter is healed at a distance – with no more than a word spoken by Jesus. With the deaf mute Jesus goes through an elaborate process of putting his fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting and touching his tongue and finally speaking a word:  “Be opened!” The two accounts could hardly be more different.

Jesus had no formula for healing, no method; he discerned what was required in the moment and with regard to each individual, their situation and their needs. We tend to like a formula, to feel that we know what we’re doing and have some control of the outcome. That may be a mistake. Better to learn to hear what the Spirit is saying to us. If that sounds daunting, think of it as an adventure.

The two accounts both suggest we shouldn’t be surprised or put off if we meet some obstacles in healing ministry. The Syrophoenician woman has to argue Jesus into healing her daughter. At first he seems to be saying No. She could have backed off at this point and given up. But she perseveres and is rewarded. Something similar could be said about Jesus’ way of handling the deaf mute man. Perhaps he adopted this unusually complex approach because he knew that, in this situation, with this person, more than a word would be required. Maybe there was an issue with the man’s openness to being healed: he had, after all, been brought by other people. Faith sometimes means that we have to work through the difficulties and overcome the obstacles.

I’ve already mentioned that both these healings take place on the borders of Israel. This fits the context in Mark 7 perfectly. Jesus has just “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7.19). Now Mark shows the implications of that radical step being worked out in practice. Significantly, the demonised daughter in Tyre has an “unclean” spirit. Just as from this point on no food is unclean, so likewise no person is excluded by their uncleanness from the grace of God. If the Old Testament dietary laws are being set aside, that is because God is bringing his loving purpose to bear on the whole world, not just Israel.

Finally, I have been assuming that Jesus wants us to imitate him. Isn’t that what following him means? If we were willing to take some risks in healing ministry, might that not liven up our church life and put new vigour into our relationship with those outside?

When people are “overwhelmed with amazement” (Mark 7.37) by what they see God doing it’s not hard for them to turn to Christ in repentance and faith.

When Mark urges his readers to follow Jesus, he envisages, not a boring life of conventional religion, but things happening that would make people astonished.

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, p99

Mark 7: Looking good or being good?

Why are the Pharisees in this Sunday’s passage from Mark’s Gospel so bothered about washing hands before eating? What exactly did they expect? Was it (as the NRSV translates) that people should “thoroughly wash their hands”? In other words, were they genuinely bothered about cleanliness? Or were they (as the NIV translates) looking for a “ceremonial washing”?

It’s quite a big difference. My guess is that the NIV is right and the Pharisees’ concern was sticking to the tradition of the oral law which had been built up over generations[1], greatly extending and intensifying the demands of the Law of God, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). In that case the Pharisees were not really bothered about actual cleanliness but they really did care about sticking to the oral tradition and in particular whether Jesus would uphold that tradition. The fact that Jesus goes on to castigate the Pharisees for nullifying the word of God by their adherence to the oral tradition suggests that this is how he interpreted what they were up to.

Jesus cites in detail an example of the way the oral tradition was used to nullify the command of God about duties to parents. “You do many things like that”, he says. Religious people easily get set in their ways and become ferociously attached to what they’re used to: their particular place to sit in church, the time of the service, the style of music… Even such trivialities as these can get in the way of God’s purpose for the church. But church tradition can become much more destructive and self-serving than that: the Reformation of the sixteenth century was in part a protest against traditions which contradicted the free grace of the gospel itself.

All communities develop traditions, even the most self-consciously radical and innovative ones. It’s a natural human process by which communities create their own identities. But when church tradition overrides the purpose of God it’s time to call a halt.

The real problem, as Jesus saw it, with the Pharisees’ insistence on ceremonial washing was that it not only missed the point but tried to cover it up. The Old Testament purity laws were intended to point people to the real issue, which is purity of heart. Obsessive hand-washing doesn’t deal with the heart, as Lady Macbeth discovered. However often she cries “Out, damned spot” she is still left asking “Will these hands ne’er be clean?”.

She at least was conscious of guilt. The Pharisees may have gone so far down the road of hypocrisy that they cared only for the outward show of cleanliness rather than the state of their heart before God and neighbour. Looking good without being good.

Jesus goes on to explore the issue in detail. What defiles a person is not what goes into their mouths but what comes out of their hearts. This was radical stuff for a Jew. Mark notes just how radical:

In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.

Mark 7.19

At a stroke Jesus sets aside the Old Testament dietary laws. Now you can eat pork, hedgehog, crocodile…

So is Jesus saying that the dietary laws of the Torah were a bad thing, a mistake? What did he mean when he said that he had come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5.17)?

I think the answer is in what Jesus means by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. I think he means that they’ve done their job, which is to point to Jesus as the full and final answer to the problem of human sin. We don’t need to bother about not eating pork because through Jesus our hearts are being cleansed. The real meaning of the Law has been revealed and fulfilled. Tom Wright puts it like this:

Learning to read the Old Testament this way wasn’t easy in the early church, and it isn’t easy today. The starting-point is to realize that the Jewish scriptures aren’t to be seen as a timeless code of behaviour, but as the story which leads to Jesus. This doesn’t mean we can casually set aside bits we don’t like or understand. When things are set aside, as the purity laws are here, it’s not because they’re irrelevant but because the deeper truth to which they pointed has now arrived .

Mark for Everyone, page 94

In this controversy with the Pharisees Jesus does two things, each of which is vitally important for understanding the gospel and for the future direction of the church. He forces people to confront the real problem of life, which is inward rather than outward, what’s in your heart rather than what’s on your plate. And he paves the way for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church without their having to become Jews by adhering to the Jewish Law.

That issue would take up a lot of St Paul’s time and energy, but that’s for another day…

[1] See for instance the detailed discussion in William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark pp246f

Faith seeking understanding

This week’s Gospel reading takes us to the end of John Chapter 6 and the final outcome of Jesus’ long discourse on the bread of life. Up to this point the crowd have grumbled about Jesus’ teaching, but now the grumbling begins to infect the circle of his disciples as well:

Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

John 6.66

Because they don’t understand what Jesus is saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and it doesn’t fit with their ideas about being his disciple, they take offence. They are in effect sitting in judgment on Jesus’ teaching – making themselves the arbiters of truth rather than letting him shape their thinking. It was a common response to Jesus. When John the Baptist was having a hard time working out whether Jesus really was who he’d thought he was, Jesus sent a message listing the mighty works which authenticated his Messiahship. He then issued a gentle warning:

… blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.

Matthew 11.6

Taking offence has become a favourite pastime in our culture. It’s one of the chief drivers of social media. The problem with taking offence is that it stops you from learning. Somebody else’s offensive point of view may contain truth. If you refuse to entertain what the other person says you shut yourself up in your own limited understanding of the world.

What are we supposed to do when Jesus’ teaching, or the words of Scripture, or something in a sermon or a discussion, rub us up the wrong way? Here is some advice from Calvin:

… if we judge of Christ’s teaching from our feelings, His words will be just so many paradoxes. Therefore nothing remains but for everyone to commit himself to the guidance of the Spirit, that He may inscribe on our hearts what otherwise would never even have entered into our ears.

People taking offence and leaving the church is the inevitable experience of most pastors. The fact that Jesus had the same experience should give us some comfort. It reminds us that church growth is not a simple upward trajectory of ever-increasing numbers. It involves pruning, and without pruning, growth is unlikely to be healthy.

The departure of a large number of disciples touches Jesus personally. He wants to know whether his inner circle are also thinking of leaving. He turns to the twelve and asks:

Do you also wish to go away?

John 6.67

Peter’s reply is important:

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.

John 6.68

“We have come to believe and know…” In Peter’s experience faith/belief has resulted in knowledge. Taking a step of faith in following Jesus has brought him to a place where he can say that he not only believes but knows that Jesus is who he says he is. This is the wrong way round according to the usual human way of thinking. We tend to assume that knowledge comes first and then faith. Show me and I’ll believe.

This reversal of human expectations is a key ingredient in Christian growth. Augustine and Anselm encapsulated the proper Christian stance as fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. In other words, trust what Jesus tells you and over time you will come to understand. Don’t reject what you don’t understand but let the Holy Spirit be your teacher. Here is Calvin again:

… the obedience of faith is the beginning of true understanding; or rather, faith itself is truly the eye of the mind.

In all relationships this is the way things work. You only get to know somebody if you first trust yourself to them. This is true in marriage. Committing yourself to one person for life is a step of faith which leads to much deeper knowledge. Supremely it is true in our relationship with God.

Does this mean that Christian faith requires us to shut off our minds and deny our thirst for understanding? Not at all. Robin Williams famously listed “You don’t have to check your brains at the door” as one of the top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian (along with such delights as free wine on Sundays and no snake handling) but no Christian of any tradition is required to stop thinking. Quite the reverse. We are told to expect “the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12.2). That renewal requires that we open our minds to some new thoughts.

Why does Jesus tell us to eat him?

Last week we explored how people reacted to Jesus’ revelation that he himself was and is the bread of life which comes down from heaven. How could this man they knew all about claim to come from heaven? It was a lot to take in.

In this week’s Gospel reading Jesus reveals the shocking point of this whole discourse: since he is the bread of life they need to eat him – eat his flesh. And if they do that they will live forever. Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he says, abide in him and he in them.

What does he mean and why does he put it like this?

Most Christian readers will assume that, whatever else Jesus means, he has the Eucharist in mind – the receiving of Holy Communion in bread and wine. Some commentators dispute this but it seems to me hard to avoid the idea that Jesus includes the sacrament in what he is talking about.

However, abiding in Christ involves more than receiving Holy Communion. St Augustine puts it rather brutally:

This is eating that food and drinking that drink: abiding in Christ and having him abide in oneself. And thus if someone does not abide in him, there can be no doubt that he does not eat his flesh or drink his blood, but rather he is eating and drinking the sacrament to his condemnation.

Homily 26 on John’s Gospel

Jesus expounds what he means by abiding in Chapter 15 of the Gospel, and John goes on to explore it further in his first letter. Some of the key ingredients appear to be: prayer, immersion in the word of God, loyalty to the truth revealed in Christ, holiness of life, love for fellow believers… Some modern translations routinely translate the word abide as “live”. This conveys the central idea that abiding is about the whole of life. It is a life of communion with God in its widest sense.  

What can we learn from Jesus’ use of the metaphor of eating as a way of explaining what he says about abiding?

Here are some suggestions.

Eating is essential, not an occasional amusement or a private hobby. We all need to eat to stay alive. Particularly was this true of bread in the culture of Jesus’ time. It is still true in many parts of the world to this day. Life in the old Soviet Union was beset by many and frequent shortages. Unless you had access to the special shops for the elite you could never count on finding even the most basic things to buy. Except for bread. Russian black rye bread was always available. If it stopped being available, then people knew they were in deep trouble. Knowing Jesus is not the icing on the cake of life; it’s not even the cake; it’s much more basic: it’s bread.

Eating is something we ordinarily do every day and several times a day. And the process starts all over again tomorrow. We never get to the end of it. Bishop Westcott comments that the tense of the verb

…marks an action which must be continuous and not completed once for all .

Commentary on the Gospel of St John page 107

Jesus is not an item on a tasting menu – a morsel to be savoured briefly before you move swiftly on to the next thing. He is our daily bread.

Eating is both personal and communal. It involves each of us personally. Nobody can eat for you. But it is natural to want to eat with other people. Eating together celebrates and cements relationship. Knowing Jesus is personal and individual but it crucially involves interaction with others who want to know him too.

Eating is (normally meant to be) enjoyable. It is one of the great pleasures of life.  The word John uses for eating in this chapter occurs only once in any other New Testament writer:

… in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…

Matthew 24.38

Westcott again:

The verb used here expresses not only the simple fact of eating but the process as that which is dwelt upon with pleasure.

Jesus is not imposing on us a dreary, joyless duty. Rather, he invites us to a really good meal: not the feeble imitation of bread which is too often sold in our supermarkets, but a crusty, flavoursome sourdough.

Eating presupposes an act of total self-giving. What we eat was once alive and is now dead. This is true at a trivial level of the carrots which, in the immortal words of a character in the film Notting Hill, “have been murdered”. It is much more significantly true of the leg of lamb or the steak we might enjoy. It is supremely true of Jesus himself, whose talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood implies his own violent death. Eating requires a sacrifice. When we feed on Christ we are reaping the benefits of his sacrificial death. He offers himself to us without reserve or limit.

Finally, eating reminds us that we are what we eat. What we eat shapes what we become. Feeding on Christ we become – little by little – more like him:

… conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.

Romans 8.27

Eating flesh and drinking blood: it’s not a nice idea. But, if we allow the metaphor to speak to us, it reveals  a lot about our communion with God.

My view of God or His?

In last week’s lectionary Gospel reading we saw Jesus taking people on a journey of discovery. He showed them two things. First, he showed them that the bread they were so interested in (having been miraculously fed by Jesus in the wilderness) was a foretaste of something much more important – a kind of nourishment which would fill them with the life of God’s coming Kingdom. And second, he told them that this gift he was offering was nothing less than the gift of himself. He was and is the bread of God which comes down from heaven.

In this week’s passage we meet their response. They are shocked, incredulous, and frankly cheesed off. He appears to be talking nonsense. They grumble.

You can see their point. We know this man: we know who his parents are, we know where he comes from, we know him. How can he say that he has come down from heaven? In other words, how can God have a name, an address and a human history that we all know? They have their idea of God and Jesus doesn’t fit.

“My idea of God” or “my view of God” or “my kind of God” is an expression I come across quite frequently, not least in church circles. We like to make God comprehensible and acceptable to us. We want him to conform to our way of thinking and our way of doing things. When the scriptures present us with something we don’t understand or don’t like we reckon it our right to reject what they tell us in favour of something more palatable.

It’s understandable but not very logical or sensible. A moment’s thought will tell us that reality is what it is and not what we’d like it to be. Some things that physics tell us about the natural world are very hard to get one’s head round. If that is true of the world we can see, how much more is it likely to be true of God whom we can’t see?

Jesus tells them to stop grumbling. He explains that the only way they can come to him in faith is if God the Father does something in them to enable them to believe:

No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.

John 6.44

A person can only be known if they choose to reveal themselves. Some people don’t give much away – they’re hard to get to know. We sometimes speak of such people as a “closed book”. Others are “open books”; they hold little back, making themselves easy to know. Only God can reveal who God is:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1.18

We are entirely dependent on God for knowledge of God. He comes to us and makes himself known. The pattern is evident in the New Testament. By the sea of Galilee Jesus comes to some fishermen and calls them to follow him. On the road to Damascus Jesus grabs hold of Saul and changes him from being the fiercest enemy of the gospel to its most devoted servant. At Caesarea Philippi Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, only to be told that this revelation came not from his own good sense or depth of insight but from God the Father himself.

The same pattern still holds. We talk of humanity’s search for God, but the real story is God’s search for us. One of the best-known examples is C. S. Lewis, who – far from searching for God – describes himself as:

… brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting [my] eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 14

More recently writer Paul Kingsnorth tells a similar story

Perhaps our own experience is less dramatic and feels more like our own self-motivated search. In one sense this is quite natural. What God does to reveal himself he does in us and not merely to us.

One of the tests of the reality of our knowledge of God is that it involves repentance. We find our mind being changed (that’s what the word means) about who God is and what he is like, increasingly conformed to the portrait painted by the scriptures and less dependent on “my view of God”.  Only so can we know Jesus as the bread of life which comes down from heaven.

The Gift or the Giver?

Being retired and therefore no longer required to produce a new sermon every week I thought I would try sharing some thoughts on the Gospel passage set for the coming Sunday, in the hope they might prove useful to hard-pressed preachers, Bible Study leaders or just anybody who wants to reflect on the lectionary readings.

So here is a thought taken from the Gospel for Sunday 1st August (Trinity 9): John 6.24-35.

Jesus has fed the five thousand and then disappeared up a mountain to escape from the crowds who would otherwise have attempted to make him king by force. Eventually the crowds catch up with him. He rebukes them for failing to understand that the miracle of the loaves and fish was meant to be a sign and not just a free lunch. It was supposed to make them ask questions about who this could possibly be who turns one boy’s picnic into a feast for a multitude.

Incredibly, they respond to Jesus’ rebuke by asking for… a sign!  They have comprehensively missed the point. If it weren’t rather sad, this would actually be funny.

They go on to talk about Moses and the gift of manna in the wilderness. Maybe they’re hinting that Jesus’ provision of just one meal is not that impressive compared to Moses providing food every day for forty years.

But Jesus takes their reference to Moses and turns it inside out:

It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

John 6.32

In this one sentence he does three things. He shifts their focus from Moses to God, from the past to the present, and from mere bread to “the true bread”:

… the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

They like that idea – maybe it sounds to them as if Jesus is offering to do again what Moses did. So they respond:

Sir, give us this bread always.

Again, they’ve missed the point. He is not talking about mere physical food but something much bigger, more significant, more profoundly satisfying:

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’.

He is talking about himself.

It’s not only his first hearers who misunderstood Jesus. At this point it’s easy for us to misunderstand him too. Here is James Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to inland China, commenting on this passage:

Do not change the Saviour’s words… It is not “Whosoever has drunk”, but “Whosoever drinketh”. It is not of one isolated draught He speaks, or even of many, but of the continuous habit of the soul. Thus in John 6.35 the full meaning is, “He who is habitually coming to me shall by no means hunger, and he who is believing on me shall by no means thirst”. Where many of us err is in leaving our drinking in the past, while our thirst continues present. What we need is to be drinking – yes, thankful for the occasion which drives us to drink ever more deeply of the Living Water.

Dr & Mrs Howard Taylor, Biography of James Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor is drawing out the meaning of the Greek present continuous tense. This is not a one-off event: pray the sinner’s prayer and all your problems are sorted forever. No, this is an ongoing, growing, ever-deepening relationship and experience.

Our continual temptation is to want the gifts more than the giver. Jesus tells us that what we need is the giver, and the gifts will follow.

(If you think this post is helpful, please share it with anybody you think might be interested.)

Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser is an Anglican priest, a philosopher by training and a journalist who for a time wrote a column for The Guardian and now regularly contributes to Unherd.

Until the autumn of 2011 he was Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. Until, that is, the arrival of Occupy – some 3,000 people camped out on the steps of the Cathedral to protest against the way capitalism had developed, enriching the few and impoverishing many. The background was the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and the way governments responded by bailing out the banks even though the crisis was created by the banks in the first place.

The protest caused problems for the Cathedral – concerns over health and safety, disruption of worship and disruption of tourism leading to loss of income. Eventually the Chapter (the small group of clergy in charge of the Cathedral) voted by a small margin to have the protesters evicted. Fraser voted against, and then wrote to the Dean giving notice of his intention to resign. He had wanted a theological response from the Cathedral – some serious engagement with the issues raised by the protest and some acknowledgement that the Bible (and Jesus in particular) have a lot to say about the right use of money and issues of economic justice. The prospect of an eviction possibly leading to violence in the name of the church was more than he could stomach.

Fraser’s decision to resign from the Cathedral Chapter precipitated his own crisis, a tumultuous upheaval at once personal, relational and theological. He tells his story in Chosen: Lost and Found between Christianity and Judaism.

He needed a job. Various possibilities were suggested to him, including becoming Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. It wasn’t a post he wanted (he didn’t get it) but he went for the interview anyway.

Arriving early in Liverpool he decided on the spur of the moment to visit the synagogue in the city which had been run by his great-grandfather’s brother Samuel for over thirty years. Entering the building he found himself confronted by a portrait of Samuel, which, for reasons he couldn’t explain at the time, reduced him to floods of tears. He was suddenly caught between his identity as a Christian priest and his Jewish heritage, stung by a sense that – having just left a prestigious position in the Church of England – he didn’t quite fit in either camp. And were they – are they – two camps anyway? The heart of the book is a personal and theological exploration of the relations between the two faiths, how they came to diverge and how he has worked out a way of living with a foot in both camps.

Along the way he also gives a fascinating inside story of how he came to resign from the Cathedral, touches on his decision to go into therapy and the eventual collapse of his first marriage, and tells something of the story of his subsequent marriage to an Israeli citizen. The book ends with Fraser baptizing his new son in the river Jordan.

Fraser writes very engagingly, with wit, candour, humility and without rancour towards those he disagrees with. The book is a rich blend of personal testimony with philosophical and theological reflection. (He cites Augustine’s Confessions as his inspiration.) My only criticism is there is too much detail – for my taste – about his family history on his Jewish father’s side.

Although Fraser had given his notice to the Dean he was working out his notice and therefore still a Canon of the Cathedral. And he was listed to preach at evensong the following Sunday. Somebody advised him to preach on the Bible readings set for the day. The assumption apparently was that this would be a harmless thing to do with little likelihood of finding any immediate relevance – let alone anything controversial or upsetting – in the Bible. The assumption was wrong. The Gospel text from Luke 6 included these words from Jesus:

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation.

Luke 6

Fraser comments:

It was almost absurdly apposite and, given the circumstances, there was absolutely no way such a passage could be ignored.

Giles Fraser, Chosen page 44

He made sure not to preach in a triumphalist, self-righteous See-how-Jesus-agrees-with-me kind of way:

There is sometimes an easy piety in protest that can make people close down to their self-critical vigilance, and I wanted to challenge that, both in myself and in others. ‘We all own shares in the way of the world,’ I said. And we were all up to our necks in this economic system – mostly all beneficiaries, mostly all complicit.

Chosen, page 46

Sometimes, despite any assumptions to the contrary, the Word of God speaks very sharp challenges to our lives. Let the writer to the Hebrews have the last word:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Hebrews 4.12-13

Clockwork Humans?

Most of us get up in the morning believing we have the power to make choices: what shall I wear? what shall I eat for breakfast? shall I decide not to eat breakfast? what’s on my schedule today and what space does my schedule give me for choice? what shall I give my mind to as I walk the dog or travel to work? what plans shall we make for holidays this year… For most of us, this is a no-brainer. We assume without question that we are free agents. Yes, there are constraints on all our lives but there is still plenty of room for decisions unconstrained by anything except personal choice…

Except that apparently an increasing number of philosophers and scientists disagree. They believe that free will is an illusion. For example, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne asserts that:

… free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.

The Guardian article on which this post is based explains the logic of the argument. Whatever happens in the world is caused by things that happened before. And so on backwards in time. It’s cause after cause after cause after cause… This is relatively easy to understand in terms of the world of rocks and rivers and internal combustion engines. But surely the same is true for our decisions and intentions as well:

Our decisions involve neural activity – and why would a neuron be exempt from the laws of physics any more than a rock?

This is not a new idea. In 1814 the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace proposed a thought experiment: suppose some supreme intelligence could know the position of every atom in the universe at a given moment and all the laws that governed their interactions, then he/she/it would be able to predict the future – all of it, forever, every smallest detail, down to “the slightest quiver of a sparrow’s wing” a hundred or a thousand years from now.

C. S. Lewis called this “Naturalism”:

the doctrine that only Nature – the whole interlocked system – exists.

C. S, Lewis, Miracles Chapter 3

Lewis pointed out that:

If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.

Lewis went on to argue that in order to make sense of our experience we are compelled to posit another realm above and beyond Nature (which he called Supernature) which is not subject to the laws of physics. There must be something in the make-up of humans which rescues their reasoning processes from being entirely determined by the laws of physics – and therefore not rational at all.

If we don’t do that, then we’re stuck with our neurons being subject to the laws of physics just as much as the flow of a river. And then where are we? What happens to our ability to reason, to arrive at truth? It goes out of the window. We are clockwork humans in an enormous clockwork universe, living out our meaningless, predetermined lives, all the while deluded that we are making free choices.

One way of stating the issue is to say that the mind is more than just the brain. The brain works according to the laws of Nature. The mind is dependent on the brain and will be affected by the condition of the brain but is not reducible to the brain. Scientists and philosophers have been working hard to deny this distinction for a long time, but it seems that more and more are now facing up to the logic of their position. If the brain is all we have, then free will is an illusion. Our brains just go with the endless flow of cause and effect.

If free will is an illusion, then people can’t help what they do, praise and blame are irrelevant, rewards and punishment are no longer justifiable, love, friendship and romance lose most of their appeal, we can forget about morality…

Strawson is one of several scholars now receiving messages of distress, complaint and sometimes violent abuse for destroying people’s belief in freedom of choice. For instance:

I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did… Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.

Strawson responds:

I think for these people it’s just an existential catastrophe… And I think I can see why.

You think?! The armchair academic philosopher coolly preaches catastrophe but fails to consider that some people might actually believe him. Samuel Smilansky, professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel, believes that free will is unreal but this is so frightening that people must go on believing otherwise. In other words, the élite is allowed to know the truth but don’t let it percolate down to the masses.

That free will is an illusion is deeply counter-intuitive. It is almost impossible to believe. If you really believed it you would surely curl up and die, or at least follow the advice of the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul:

Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die

Isaiah 22.13, and 1 Corinthians 15.32

Strawson’s comments quoted above indicate that he doesn’t really believe what he teaches. Smilansky admits as much:

I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years.

Who would you rather believe? Laplace, Coyne, Smilansky and Strawson, or the author of Genesis, who tells us that:

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

Genesis 2.7

In other words, we are connected to the physical world which is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry but we also have within us a spark of the divine:

the true light, which enlightens everyone

John 1.9

Logic and intuition, sanity and humanity, combine to make this the only rational conclusion.