Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Why be moral when you could be rich?

The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family after King Herod
opted for convenience rather than morality
(window in Southwell Minister)
“Morals don’t pay the bills” is the reported opinion of Wesley Perkins from Birmingham. A newspaper claimed that he buys up recently-expired internet domain names, directs their website users to pornographic sites, and demands large sums of money to return the sites to their original owners. He was said to call himself an internet gangster, but said that what he does is not illegal.1

It may be legal, but on his own admission it is hardly moral. It is taking advantage of other people for personal gain. But everyone, it seems, does it. Misha Glenny, author of the 2008 book McMafia on which a recent TV series was based, claimed that “the battle has broken out for what is moral in global terms and underpinning this is inequality.” He added that political “leaders everywhere … are engaged in financial dealings and activities which are absolutely outrageous but seen as the way of the world.”2

It is redolent of the early period of ancient Israelite history when “everyone did as they saw fit” in the absence of central authority and shared values (Judges 21:25). In Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward, a fortunate businessman takes ruthless advantage of a less fortunate one (Matthew 18:21-35). It was legal, but hardly moral.

Yet according to entrepreneur Richard Branson, “Ethics aren’t just important in business. They are the whole point of business … The more successful you get, the bigger and harder the ethical questions become.”3 We could add, they are important for everyone, in any walk of life. And they’re not always easy, either; the temptation to compromise principles for the sake of convenience is often present.

But most of us can only greet with a helpless shrug the steady stream of “outrageous” stories of exploitation or unfairness.  They include tax avoidance, cosy deals between government and big business, corner-cutting and neglect by construction companies and corporate landlords, the implicit demand of shareholders to put maximum profits before social responsibility, and the appeal to “market forces” as if they were gods demanding absolute obedience.

And then there are the excessive salaries funded by hapless customers or taxpayers, and large scale international scandals that come to light only years after the damage has been done and for which few executives pay a penalty. The list of probable or questionable legal actions that fall short of moral probity is almost endless. Doing anything about them is often above our pay grade.

Yet doing nothing is a recipe for social disintegration. “Morality matters,” wrote Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi. He defined it as “the inner voice of self-restraint that tells us not to do something even when it is to our advantage, even though it may be legal and even if there is a fair chance it won’t be found out. Because it is wrong. Because it is dishonourable. Because it is a breach of trust.”

He continued, “We are reaching the endgame of a failed experiment: society’s attempt to live without a shared moral code. … Without trust, self-interest defeats regulations, undermines institutions and eventually causes systems to collapse.”4

Of course, there is still a huge amount of good will and human care in the world. Witness the outpourings of support after terror attacks or disasters, and the offerings of money and time given to voluntary agencies and charities. It’s one thing we can all do to maintain some level of moral rectitude.

People go “the second mile” without being asked (cf. Matthew 5:41); they “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12); they “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). They are the people surprised by Jesus’ commendation for their selfless humane actions in his parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Thank God for the milk of human kindness which flows unabated even in straightened times and communities.

So: why be moral, especially if it may be to one’s own financial or other loss? There are two complementary approaches: social responsibility, and biblical requirements.

Social responsibility

Every society legislates against the worst excesses of unrestrained human behaviour. The sanctity of human life and property is protected by laws against murder and theft, which carry recognised punishments for transgressors. They can be reinforced by laws about irresponsible or dangerous conduct: driving without care and attention; erecting unsafe structures. They may be enhanced by voluntary codes of practice for institutions, businesses and trade associations to maintain acceptable standards. But no society can legislate for kindness and altruism.

                Ethicists suggest three principles for a shared code of conduct over and above the raw stipulations of the law. They are the moral duty to help people in need; consideration of the likely consequences of our actions on others (might they cause inconvenience, loss or suffering); and whether our actions contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

So the two well-heeled professionals who ignored the injured traveller in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) weren’t breaking the law, but they were acting selfishly and not loving their neighbour as themselves. It was as anti-social as playing loud music at 3.00 a.m. or dumping rubbish on public or private land instead of taking it to an authorised waste and recycling centre.

The problem with the secular approach is first, that it is not based on any absolute standard and secondly it cannot threaten any sanctions on the selfish person. The Scriptures offer both.

Biblical requirements

Most people have an innate sense that there is a distinction between right and wrong. However, human beings will often take the easy way out, or opt for the lowest common denominator of acceptable behaviour, if to do otherwise may involve personal inconvenience or risk.

Both in-built conscience, and in-grained selfishness, are recognised in the Bible. These conflicting forces can bring out the best and the worst in people. Altruism stems from the uniqueness of human beings made “in the image of God” and reflects, however imperfectly, God’s justice, mercy, kindness and faithfulness. Selfish indifference results from the dethronement of God and his standards in favour of the more achievable targets of personal convenience (for which the theological shorthand is “sin”).

The Ten Commandments provide a bare but absolute framework for conduct. They pass beyond the “legal” (prohibiting murder and theft) to include wider rules for social wellbeing to maintain work-life balance and family cohesion, and restrain personal desire (Exodus 20:1-17).

                This mix of “public” and “personal” rules for conduct is expanded in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Their instructions on appropriate behaviour mostly fall short of absolute or laws or religious duties; they are voluntary, not mandatory. Yet paradoxically they make the laws harder: hateful anger is put on a par with murder, because it causes lasting damage to everyone caught up in it. And they all stress that our behaviour and attitudes should reflect those of God.

                So, if God is kind, patient, long-suffering, forgiving, gentle with human frailty – all attributes ascribed to God in both Testaments – then so should human beings be. The list of loving, kind and often counter-intuitive actions in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is exhausting to read as well as exhaustive in scope. He sums it up in one terse, pivotal sentence: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

                St Paul’s great theological essay, his letter to the Romans, has eleven dense chapters explaining in typically rabbinic style the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross and its relevance to human experience. Then, at the start of chapter 12, he writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…”. From there he lists a range of behaviours that should characterise a person who takes God and Christ seriously: love sincerely, cling to good, honour others, bless persecutors, don’t take revenge, love your neighbour as yourself, and many more.

                Neither he nor the apostles make much of the sanctions, but they are always understood: ignore God’s ways at your peril, because they will impoverish you and the community. Jesus does banish the thoughtless and self-concerned people in the parable of the sheep and goats to outer darkness (Matthew 25:46), while Paul suggests that some people of faith will barely squeeze into the heavenly realms with red faces and nothing to commend them for their indulgent, unproductive life on earth (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). But generally the message is: love as you have been loved, serve as you have been served, out of compassion rather than from compulsion.

Theologian Christopher Wright once described the Christian life as continuing the unfinished symphony of God’s story.  “In the Bible we have the score of the earlier movements, with such a wealth of recurring themes and variations, played on such a variety of human instruments, that it is quite sufficient to enable us to work out the music of our own ethics according to the mind and will of the composer, confident in the assurance that the final resolution lies in his hands.”5

Christian living – moral, self-less, God-pleasing – is a kind of spiritual karaoke: keeping in tune with God, following his melody and freely improvising fresh harmonies that enhance and develop it without ever becoming discordant. The more people who join in with this music of the universe, the more peace on earth and goodwill to humankind will prevail over the atonal cacophony that stems from amoral indifference and immoral indulgence.

                Putting human service before political dogma, the common good before commercial profit, is not an easy sell. Electors and shareholders need persuading that morals can still pay the bills – and make the world a better place. But individuals know that to be true, and what is society but individuals working together for common ends?

Think and talk

1.  Pray: We pray that all Managers and Leaders in the Public and Private sectors will find ways to model Jesus’ forgiving and caring approach; and allow them to be led by the Holy Spirit and fully consider the consequences, on the whole community, as they make and implement difficult and potentially divisive or painful decisions. (Prayer for 1 January 2018, Peterborough Diocesan Cycle of Prayer.)
2.  Read Matthew 5-7 and make a list in your own words of every injunction in it. Which ones in particular do you need to give special attention to, and why?
3.  Read Romans 12:1 – 15:7 and make a similar list. Why do we find such common sense instructions so difficult to enact in practice?
4.  What does Deuteronomy 24:5-7,10-15 tell us about the “rights” we owe to others?
5.  What do Romans 1:28-32; 7:14-25; James 2:8-11, 4:1-4 tell us about the reasons for ethical failure?
6.  See my short story “The smoking Gnome” for common loose approaches to ethics; discuss the rights and wrongs of each! www.gentlertales.blogspot,co.uk/Thesmoking Gnome  

1.  i, 27 November 2017.
2.  Interview in The Times, 6 January 2018.
3.  Richard Branson, Business laid bare, Virgin Books 2009, p.10 (italics his).
4.  Jonathan Sacks, “It is the end of a dangerous experiment”, The Times, 7 July 2012.
5.  Christopher J.H. Wright, The use of the Bible in Social Ethics, Grove Books 1983, p.11
© Derek Williams, January 2018


Caption: The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt after the paranoid King Herod put power before truth, personal status above moral rectitude.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The need for discernment

Things aren't always what they appear
to be at first
Readers with long memories, or CVs which begin in another era, may remember that one of the early pop stars, Tommy Steele, had a hit with “Fings ain’t what they used to be”. He was heralding a period of unprecedented change. If he was writing it today, he would almost certainly have re-phrased it “Fings ain’t what they seem to be”, heralding an era of unprecedented confusion and uncertainty.

            Collins Dictionaries declared the word of the year for 2017 to be “Fake news”. Oxford Dictionaries said their word of the year for 2016 was “Post truth”. We are bombarded with information that may sound plausible and be repeated as fact in social and traditional media, but which may not be true. People in positions of power have the advantage of knowing more than we do, and can happily select and spin information to suit their purposes. A former leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once said, “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”1

Only a few media organisations still employ fact checkers, such is the pressure on their time and resources, although specialist research companies are beginning to fill the gap. They can do what we cannot. So when opposing views are proclaimed, we tend to believe what seems to us to be the most plausible – which generally is what accords with our prior beliefs about the issues or the claimants.

            We don’t just need discernment in matters of political and international policy, though, but also in our personal lives. The default position for most of us is that what we say or think is true, and everything else is “alternative fact”. We over-play information that accords with our prior views or gut feelings and play down information that challenges them, regarding them as irrelevant, ridiculing them as bias, or just flatly denying them as false. This is the source of malicious gossip and false but damaging allegations.

Perhaps by discovering some principles for everyday decisions we may also become better equipped to discern the truths of bigger issues.

Discernment is a gift

Discernment is a spiritual gift. “To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his” (Job 12:13). Solomon specifically prayed for it so that he could “distinguish between right and wrong” and govern wisely and justly (1 Kings 3:9-12). Surely that is a prayer anyone in any position of responsibility in any sector of society should echo. It was certainly expected of leaders in ancient times (see the admittedly flattering comment in 2 Samuel 14:17).

St Paul calls “distinguishing between spirits” one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10. He implies that it is something anyone can seek and it is not restricted to a few people who act as oracles or advisers. That is emphasised in his teaching about prophetic utterances: “the others [listening] should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). In other words, don’t accept high-sounding rhetoric as gospel; be cautious rather than gullible.   

When two great “dreamers” of the Bible, Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, were each called upon to interpret other people’s dreams and thereby discern what God was saying through them, they both issued a personal disclaimer. Neither claimed anything for himself. Joseph, once the brash teenager who had so infuriated his family with his rash dream-based boasts about how he would one day lord it over them, denies any inherent skill: “I cannot do it. But God will give Pharaoh the answer he [God] desires” Genesis 41:16; cf. 40:8).

Similarly Daniel, faced with the even greater challenge of telling the suspicious King Nebuchadnezzar both what the dream consisted of and its interpretation, confessed “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Daniel 2:21,27-28).

Although “distinguishing between spirits” is sometimes narrowly interpreted by some Christians today as telling the difference between demons and the Holy Spirit (which on occasions it may be), It’s mostly about clarifying whether someone is telling the truth (see 1 John 4:1). Jesus rebuked his opponents who knew how to discern the weather from the appearance of the sky, but couldn’t discern the truth about his mission and message (Matthew 16:1-3). Paul discerned that Ananias and Sapphira were lying about their contribution to the church (Acts 5). He used the gift to deal with a fortune teller in Philippi who was telling the truth but for wrong reasons (Acts 16:16-21). That is reminiscent of TS Eliot’s famous line in Murder in the Cathedral, “that the last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason”.

So if we are to be discerning, the first thing we should do is defer to God.

Discernment comes from patience

The second is to learn patience. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit in the New Testament (Galatians 5:22, sometimes translated as “forbearance” or “long-suffering”). Paul calls for it as a mark of true discipleship: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. … And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Proverbs says, “Whoever is patient has great understanding [that is discernment], but one who is quick-tempered [that is, in a hurry] displays folly” (14:29). John in the book of Revelation, describing the cycles of turmoil that characterise every era of human history says, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people” (13:10).

We can’t expect to become discerning people if we’re always in a rush to decide or pronounce on something before moving on to the next issue. That is hugely challenging in a fast-paced society. Discernment often requires that we do not make rapid decisions, that we do not jump to conclusions, that we do not form quick opinions that don’t do justice to the broader context. If God is faithful, his purposes won’t be thwarted because we took time to listen carefully and get our actions and views in tune with his.

Discernment is open-minded

The enemy of discernment is the assumption that we already know the answer. We cannot be truly discerning if we are merely looking for confirmation of a proposed action or preferred viewpoint. A number of ancient biblical proverbs remind us that to be discerning, we have to be prepared to be proved wrong. That does not come easily to most of us. “To themselves, people are usually right,” declares a character in Iain Banks’ novel The Business2.

            Not to the authors of Proverbs. Motive is everything: “The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none” (because s/he has a closed mind) “but knowledge comes easily to the discerning” (because they are open to fresh information, 14:6). Discerning people are open to correction: “A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool” (17:10, cf.19:25; we may balk at the idea of corporal punishment but the point is clear: some people are too self-opinionated to be changed by anything).

            There is an echo of this in Paul’s teaching about prophets in the church in 1 Corinthians 14. As well as urging listeners to weigh carefully the pronouncements, he also says that prophets should speak in turn and defer to each other (vv.29-33). Michael Green comments, “Presumably the longer the prophet goes on, the more likely he is to be talking from his own ideas rather than from the Lord!”3

            Discernment, which is closely related to wisdom (they can be distinguished by thinking of wisdom as understanding and discerning as deciding), comes only when it is sought earnestly. Seeking assumes that the answer, the treasure, is still hidden. “The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly” (that is, accepts uncritically that which feeds his prejudices, Proverbs 15:14); “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out” (18:15).

            Gerard Hughes describes how St Ignatius Loyola and a group of friends discerned God’s purposes for them. They each shared in turn reasons why they should not take a certain action, with no discussion. They went away to pray. Then they came together and once more in turn shared reasons why they should take the action, again with no discussion, and went away to pray. The next time they met they found they were in full agreement. They had weighed it up patiently, with open minds, and discerned the way forward together.4

Discernment defers to Scripture   

There has to be some final arbiter for Christian faith and action. Jesus warned of false prophets who appear very plausible (wolves in sheep’s clothing, Matthew 7:15-20). He suggests they are distinguished by the way they live, although that itself can be misleading unless we are very discerning. Very nice people in churches and community organisations have turned out to be fraudsters or abusers, perhaps because warning signs were ignored as being “unthinkable”. The devil wears Prada, not horns.

            The second century Christian document Didache stresses the need to check the lifestyles of people claiming to speak from God, and particularly suggests that if they ask for food or money, or outstay their welcome, they are to be regarded as suspect. Another early document suggests that the man “who wishes to have the first seat, and is bold and impudent and talkative and lives in the midst of many luxuries and many other delusions, and takes rewards for his prophecy” is also likely to be a false prophet.5  This is a strong indictment of some freelance ministers who peddle their services in return for their keep and operate largely outside the discipline and authority of a specific local church.

            Deuteronomy 13:1-5 warns that people who interpret dreams which come true – seemingly authenticating their gift – can still lead people away from God by advocating actions which are contrary to what God has previously revealed about his character and purposes. Jeremiah (23:25ff) warns about prophets who get very excited about dreams which can be delusional and says “Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?”

            God’s Word does not change, even if our understanding and interpretation of it does. God will not lead us to do something which contradicts the primary teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Hence the need for all of us, not just church leaders, to “search the Scriptures” (see John 5:39-40). On Paul’s visit to Berea the people “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” – and they only had the Old Testament to use (Acts 17:11).

Discernment is difficult

In all this, it is important to recognise that discernment doesn’t come easily. It is especially difficult in western countries for us to discern between wants and needs. The psychologist Oliver James tells of a British woman married to a super-rich property developer. One day she went to a Porsche dealer and bought a car on the spot even though she had no driving licence. When her personal assistant asked why she’d done it she said, “Because I can. I hate [my husband], I’m unhappy, and I have the money.”6 Extreme retail therapy, perhaps, but not completely beyond the experience of doing something “because I can”, without regard to wider issues.

The failure to distinguish between wants and needs forgets Paul’s words: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). Otherwise our focus turns to ourselves, or to things, rather than to God’s purposes. We get caught up in the ultimately unsatisfying pursuit of more and better things for their own sake, instead of enjoying what we have and using it for the benefit of others.

Similarly we need to discern between what we could do and what we should do. Life offers many choices. Most of us have multiple gifts and abilities. C.H. Spurgeon, a Baptist preacher at the end of the 19th century, once said: “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” From the same era, the missionary Amy Carmichael who spent 50 years in India wrote, “I am not sure that I would feel guidance lay in all doors shutting behind. I have never yet moved on without several doors being wide open behind and many hands pushing me through one or other of those doors.”7

            Discernment is perhaps the most important gift to pray for in the modern world. We need it personally in order to have fulfilling lives. Our leaders need it in order to act effectively.

Think and talk

1. Pray: Father, we’re in a hurry. Slow us down. There are so many voices shouting for our attention; help us to listen carefully, to distinguish truth from half truth, and especially to hear what you want to tell us. Grant us the courage to be truly faithful to you and your word. To be patient. To be open-minded. And to be discerning people in a world that’s lost its way. Amen.
2.  Look up the Bible passages quoted in the text above, and read and meditate on them in their contexts.
3.  Read and meditate on the Solomon story and make his prayer your own (1 Kings 3:6-15).
4.  How will you and your friends or church go about discerning what is right or true when you hear new claims or assertions?
5.  What criteria will you use to distinguish between what is a valid difference of opinion and what is true or false? And how will you react to differences of opinion or viewpoint in the future?

1.  Quoted by Oliver James, Affluenza, Vermillion 2007, p. 241.
2.  Iain Banks, The Business, Little, Brown & Company 1999, p.237.
3.  Michael Green, I believe in the Holy Spirit, Hodder and Stoughton 1979, p.189.
4.  Gerard Hughes, God of Surprises, Darton, Longman & Todd 1985, pp.146-7.
5.  The examples are from Michael Green, Op.cit. pp.190-191.
6.  Oliver James, Op.cit., p.55.
7.  Amy Carmichael, Candles in the dark, SPCK 1988, p.42. The origin of the Spurgeon quote is unknown.

© Derek Williams November 2017.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Floods of concern - a fresh look at Noah

Facing the flood or stemming the tide?
An Antony Gormley figure at Margate, Kent
Earth, air, fire and water – the four elemental forces – are always in the news, often for the wrong reasons. Earthquakes, mudslides and avalanches; 170mph hurricanes; Grenfell Tower inferno and blazing forests; tsunamis and devastating floods in the Americas and Asia. The UK has had its own share; remember Boscastle, the Somerset Levels, Cumbria and Yorkshire. Tsunamis devastated the south of England in 1014 and 1755 (possibly because of asteroid collisions).

We can only feel for today’s victims and lobby governments and commercial interests to take climate change, construction safety and flood prevention seriously, whatever the financial cost.

            Natural disasters are nothing new. Several are recorded in the Bible and other ancient documents. Noah’s flood is one of them. It doesn’t explain why we live in an unstable and accident-prone world. But it does offer important spiritual food for thought. 

However, get rid of childhood pictures of boats and animals. Read Genesis 6-9 first. Remember that when Israelites wanted to teach or explain things, they told stories. (“Story” doesn’t necessarily mean “fiction”; journalists use the term to mean a news report, which may or may not be wholly accurate or unbiased.) Remember too that Genesis 1-10 is a scene-setter or prologue for the whole Bible, and therefore requires careful interpretation and comparison with other passages.

A flood of facts

There are said to be about 150 different flood stories from around the world similar to that of Noah. Three of them from the Middle East share a number of features with Genesis – but also have some important differences. Genesis is simpler, less elaborate, and above all monotheistic.

Some people conclude that Genesis is just one of many such stories, and therefore it has no enduring message.  Others such as Bible commentator Derek Kidner suggest that all the stories may have an origin in a real past event. Handed down orally through the generations and across different cultures some accumulated the kind of elaboration that occurs in Chinese whispers. If biblical inspiration is taken seriously, the Genesis account could be thought of as God’s corrective to the wilder myths.

            Kidner comments, “It is reasonable to think that some memories of Noah’s flood were carried into distant parts by the expanding circle of his descendants; yet it must be remembered that floods are not the rarest of disasters, and survivors’ experiences will have much in common.”1

             There is geological evidence of widespread floods in different periods of history and in different parts of the world. Bronze Age settlements around the Black Sea (not so far from the Middle East and the setting of Genesis) were inundated some 7,500 years ago, perhaps a result of the end of the last ice age. (Those melt waters also turned the British mainland into an island separate from Europe.)

Floods are a fact of life. It’s just that the Bible gives this flood story added meaning. But before we consider that, note what Genesis doesn’t say.

·         It doesn’t claim that the flood was global. Ancient authors often thought of “the world” as their part of it. They didn’t have a map or even a concept of the whole planet and its different lands. Genesis is focused on one small part of the world and for the author’s purposes nowhere else exists.

·         Nor does it say that Noah built a boat. The word “ark” means a chest or shelter and its cube-shaped dimensions and size are known elsewhere in antiquity. Sensational claims to have found the ark are unhelpful (and unsubstantiated). The point is that Noah took precautions as a result of some God-given foresight and/or astute reading of meteorological signs which he attributed to God.

A tide of judgement

Getting swept away by a torrent of scepticism or on a raft of possible scenarios misses the point of why the story is there and what it is meant to teach. It is a carefully constructed story in the form of a “palistrophe”, a symmetrical structure in which the first and second halves mirror each other. That in itself suggests that this is a tale with a moral. It introduces the notion of accountability and responsibility which is developed and illustrated in later biblical writings.

It tells us that God’s patience is not as infinite as God’s existence. There comes a time when God says enough is enough. Enough of this mindless violence. Enough of this greedy acquisitiveness. Enough of this superficial living for no other purpose than self-gratification. Enough of the carping criticism as if one race, class, gender or person was somehow superior to others, when all in fact are flawed. Enough of this sugary spirituality that attempts to bend the divine will to fulfil human ambition. Enough!

           Or, as the New Testament makes clear, our attempts to hold back the tide of accountability are doomed to failure like those of the legendary King Canute. “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). We may avoid immediate retribution (thank God he is not impetuous) but we cannot postpone indefinitely the divine assessment (see Revelation 20:11-15).

           It’s not something we like to think about. For most practical purposes we regard God as a soft touch who like an indulgent parent overlooks the minor errors of a spoiled child. We forget his subtle commands (such as to avoid anger and slander; see Colossians 3:8), when he’s pronounced them in the Scriptures and promised wisdom to those who ask. We blame our genes (“I couldn’t help it; this is how I am”) when the God who created them has also given us willpower, choice and the promise to provide a way out from any temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).

We confidently plead not guilty to murder, theft and similar crimes, considering as insignificant the “idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (Galatians 5:20-21) that flesh is heir to and which offend God and damage other people. We claim a clear conscience without recognising that this in-built sin detector can be hacked by our personal preferences. Paul noted in brutal honesty, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). His conscience allowed him to torture and kill Christians before it was totally re-programmed by the Holy Spirit.

The bottom line is that God’s standard is perfection, therefore “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point is guilty of breaking all of it” – because we have ceased to be perfect (James 2.10; cf. Matthew 5:48). The story of Noah shows that God does not like what he sees in the behaviours and attitudes of a world that ignores or pays lip service to him.

It ought not to be such a strange idea today. Most people in employment are subject to regular assessments. Promotion or demotion may depend on the results. Misconduct will be met with some disciplinary measure, fine or even dismissal. Lawbreaking in society – from traffic offences to serious crimes – are given penalties ranging from a fine or caution to imprisonment. Not so long ago (and still in parts of the US and elsewhere) some resulted in execution. Critical judgement is part of human life in an imperfect world; why should God’s judgement be considered differently?

A raft of renewal and stream of hope

But the Noah story also shows us that God always provides a remedy for human waywardness. He did not wipe out everyone. He preserved Noah, his family and the physical creation. He gave the human race an opportunity to make a fresh start. That is the lifeline which links every part of the Old and New Testaments.

The story of Noah introduces the great biblical themes of forgiveness, redemption and renewal that culminate in the coming of Christ who “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Remember that, when you see a rainbow: the bright reminder of God’s multi-coloured all-embracing love stretching across the world he made (Genesis 9:12-17). It is one of the Old Testament’s symbolic forerunners of the cross of Christ.

Perhaps because of this story, and certainly because of their narrow escape from Egypt across the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), the Israelites were always fearful of the sea and despite living on the coast never became a maritime nation. They also lived in an area where drought was an ever-present risk. Too much, or too little, water were motifs that inspired fear. So it’s significant that Jesus used water, the single most important ingredient for physical life to exist, to describe the spiritual life bestowed by the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39). What was once a symbol of judgement and source of anxiety has become instead a sign of new life and hope.

A deluge of protest

And yet. Why did God go to so much trouble to create a beautiful, amazing world full of clever, imaginative people formed in his own image, only to drown them like a litter of unwanted feral kittens when they don’t measure up to his requirements not so long after he’d created them? And to do so indiscriminately – were they really all as bad as each other?

And then on top of that to say sorry, I won’t do it again – even though since then people have invented and used weapons of mass destruction, selfishly exploited (and hoarded) earth’s resources and become slave drivers and ethnic cleansers – in short, carried on being “corrupt and full of violence” on an even greater scale?

           Because drowning is a truly horrible way to die. It isn’t quick or painless. It is physically and mentally cruel. Drowning is torture, which is why the Americans employed waterboarding to torture Iraqi prisoners not so long ago, failing in the process to extract much useful information and succeeding only in dehumanising themselves and mentally damaging their victims.2

            Any sentient land creature, from small insects to humans to elephants, fights frantically for life when submerged. We cling to life tenaciously. We do not go gently into that good night. Imagine the human body fighting for breath as water enters its lungs, flapping and kicking in an attempt to rise to the surface. Or being swept away in a torrent, powerless to resist the mighty wall of water that is strong enough to upturn vehicles and topple buildings, and being dashed against obstacles along its course. And all the while the mind remains conscious, screaming noiselessly in its helplessness, fear, dread and anger.  

            Unlike Tom the water baby in Charles Kingsley’s story, a person does not sprout “round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills”3 when plunged into water. Drowning is fearsome. Is God a torturer as well as an executioner? The rest of the Bible would suggest not. The message of Noah is not about the form of death. It is reminding readers, as part of the Bible’s prologue, that life is uncertain and that human beings are answerable to God at any time.

            Jesus took two similar, but smaller, scenarios of mass death to rule out the idea that somehow the victims “deserved” it. He used their story as a reminder that we should all be ready to answer to God at any time (see Luke 13:1-5). And the New Testament is clear that it is after death that the judgement occurs (Hebrews 9:27). The mode of death itself is not the judgement. We all die, but in different ways. What form that final post-demise judgement takes, and what sanctions God may impose, is another subject entirely.

Think and talk

1.  Look up the references in the text above and think about their message to you today.
2.  Why do we so easily point the finger at others’ wrong-doing and excuse our own? (See Matthew 7:1-5; James 4:11-12).
3.  “By your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned.” So said Jesus in Matthew 12:37. How seriously do we take that in everyday life, and what should we do about it?
4.  Natural disasters (and disasters caused by terrorism, war and persecution) often elicit a generous response from the public (through such agencies as the Disasters Relief Council) and voluntary agencies. Why? And why are governments often reluctant to release their funds and resources in sufficient quantities to make a big difference?


1.  Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Tyndale Press 1967, p.96.
2.  “Most experts on torture and police interrogations agree that such physical abuse committed with humiliating and degrading tactics rarely yields trustworthy evidence. You get confessions and admissions by building rapport not by bullying, by earning trust not by fostering hatred.” Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, Rider 2009, p. 377.
3.  Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies, Penguin Popular Classics 1995, p. 57. Originally published in 1863, it assumed a far greater level of language and anatomical knowledge than children’s books do today!

(c) Derek Williams 2017

Thursday, 7 September 2017

All fall down - the point of Adam and Eve

The "talking snake" was left legless in the Garden of Eden story
If Eve were the only girl in the world, and Adam the only boy – where on earth did their son Cain get his wife from? Or were the first humans incestuous? That conundrum is an apparently decisive argument to dismiss the stories of Adam and Eve in the Bible as having neither truth nor relevance.

But there is more than one way of looking at the ancient story in Genesis 2-4. First, it’s about a specific couple with a specific role, not necessarily the first-ever humanoids. Secondly, there are similar ancient stories from different parts of the world. That suggests a kind of collective memory of an historic event that passed through oral cultures that embellished or distorted it in the process. And thirdly, when linked to the rest of Scripture, Genesis 2-4 introduces theological teachings central to Christian faith: the chapters are more about the nature of human beings than their origins.

Not such a lonely world?

There is no point in insisting, as a small minority of commentators and believers do, that everything that anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered during the past 150 years is wrong. Interpretations of evidence may be modified as more discoveries are made, but the evidence remains.

We know that there was a leap in the number of human-like creatures between 1.8 million and 800,000 years ago. There was also a rapid (in evolutionary terms) change in their brain-size. True humans have a much larger brain than their ancestors, which is essential for the unique human ability to reflect self-consciously and think abstractly (and, one could add, relate personally to God). In June 2017 researchers claimed the latest evidence suggested that the earliest humans emerged in Africa at least 300,000 years ago, and spread rapidly.

Translators are unsure if and when “Adam” should be rendered as a proper name. This is because “Adam” is a generic term in Hebrew for “mankind” and is related to the word for “ground”. It associates humans with both the rest of the animal creation and with the physical elements of the earth. The New International Version uses it as a name in Genesis 2:20 but qualifies it with a footnote, and the New Revised Standard Version in 4.25, long after Cain has killed Abel. Similarly “Eve” simply means “living” and is not used by the Genesis author until 4:1.

The emphasis on the physicality of Adam in Genesis rules out any idea of humans being pre-existent souls (or aliens) clothed temporarily in flesh or trapped on earth. It also rules out any idea of reincarnation. This is a major theological assertion for both ancient and modern audiences, and was stressed by Paul in his essay on the resurrection: “The first man was of the dust of the earth” (1 Corinthians 15:47-49).

Clearly, though, the rest of Scripture treats Adam and Eve as actual, if representative, persons. In Romans 5 draws the contrast between Adam’s disobedience and Jesus’ sacrificial obedience. True humans, male and female, according to Genesis 1:27 are people created “in God’s image”. At the very least, that means being capable of relating to God, as the mid-20thcentury poet David Gascoyne wrote:
            Let me remember
            That truly to be man is man aware of Thee
            And unafraid to be. So help me God.1

It takes nothing from the authority and inspiration of Scripture to suggest that God singled out a pair of existing hominoid creatures for three purposes. (The 1950 Roman Catholic Encyclical Humanis Generis suggested “divine inflatus” – the jump from hominoid to true human in God’s image – took place about 800,000 years ago.) One purpose was to make them aware of his existence, thereby imprinting his image on them. The second was to make them aware of the reason for, and boundaries of, their own existence. And the third was to initiate a family line whose task was to spread the word of his existence and purposes. 1 Chronicles 1 traces a line from Adam to Abraham. Luke 3 traces the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam, although Matthew 1 begins with Abraham, the “father” of the Israelites.

In Genesis, the couple are located in “Eden”, which means “Paradise”. That term may relate to a state of being as much as to a specific place, although the author sites it in the Near East, where the rest of the Bible is set and which was one of the earliest centres of civilisation. That reinforces the point that the Bible is a sort of biography of a specific group of people with a specific task, not the story of the whole race.

And that, of course, is how God has operated all through history: from small, obscure beginnings the Kingdom of God is built, stone by stone. The story of God’s revelation of himself and people’s encounters with him starts with one couple. They grew into the Israelites who were a small tribe with a big task (see Deuteronomy 7:7-9). The twelve apostles were a dozen men of mixed ability charged with a world-wide mission in a hostile environment (Matthew 28:19-20). The church today is a minority community called to continue the same mission. “Unlikely” individuals are called by God to fulfil tasks that can succeed only through humble dependence on him (see Jeremiah 1:4-10; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

For the purposes of the biblical narrative and the subsequent stories of the Israelites, Jesus and the Apostles, Adam and Eve were the first people to discover who God is and what he wants. Unfortunately, they messed it up.

Did the snake really talk?

Christians know that God can “speak” in all kinds of ways. “Messages” can be suggested by scenery, circumstances, events, animal behaviour (think spiders and patience) and human antics. Prophecy may come straight to the mind but biblically some prophetic messages were prompted by external factors (as in Jeremiah 18:1-12). Solomon nurtured his wisdom through observing nature (1 Kings 4:33f); Job appealed to the “message” of the animal kingdom that innocence doesn’t guarantee freedom from suffering (Job 12:7).

Temptation can assault us in the same way. Bible writers, Jesus and the apostles were in no doubt that there is a sub-personal evil power in the cosmos they call Satan, bent on attempting to neutralise anything that promotes goodness and godliness. That it can make itself felt, and heard, through all kinds of means is just as likely as someone “hearing” something from God.

So when we encounter the two “talking” animals in the Bible, we don’t have to suspend our credulity. In each case the focus is on the message, not the messenger. Balaam’s taking donkey (Numbers 22:28-31) is an obstinate beast that brays at him in such a way that Balaam’s conscience is pricked; he’s clearly had the animal a long time and there is a bond between them.  He “hears” in the donkey’s complaint his unfair treatment and then realises what the problem is. God “spoke” through the animal’s behaviour.

The snake in the Garden of Eden is more difficult and is regarded as the mouthpiece of Satan. Snakes (whether or not they have poison in their mouths) are loathed throughout the world and are universal symbols of evil. They appear in the Harry Potter stories, where the evil Lord Voldemort has a pet snake (Nagini) and a monster serpent or Basilisk guards the Chamber of Secrets.

To call a person a snake is a shorthand for saying they are slippery, devious, dangerous, and scheming. In the Bible snakes are seen by Jesus as a symbol of deception in Matthew 23:33; and Satan is referred to as the serpent in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2. The deception of Adam and Eve by a serpent is directly mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11:3. (The tree in question is not named in Genesis and is generally considered to have been “any” tree, not one with special powers. It was breaking what seemed to Adam and Eve as an arbitrary rule, not eating a certain kind of fruit, which was at the heart of God’s command not to eat its fruit.)

A little imagination can make sense of the account without dismissing it as fantasy. Maybe the snake was by or in the tree, drawing her attention to it. Perhaps it was enjoying the forbidden fruit; maybe birds were pecking at it, too, all eating it with no apparent ill effects. Genesis 3:6 says she saw it was “good for food” – how could she, unless a creature was eating it? Did the windfalls on the ground smell appetising? When she picked one up was it smooth, pleasant to the touch?

Merely looking at something can create a craving (think cake, ice cream and chocolate adverts). The inner voice fuelled by “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) shouts loudly in our heads. By now, perhaps, Eve was drooling. All her senses were being assaulted; her primal need for food was aroused. Temptation does not usually impact itself on our minds in some intellectual way, it attacks on several fronts at once and especially through feelings and emotion. She could have turned away, but consciousness overwhelmed conscience.

The serpent’s promised “wisdom” would have been interpreted by Eve as discovering something new. People are naturally curious – that is part of being in God’s image. We have grown in knowledge and embarked on research and discovery by exploring and examining God’s world, by asking “what if?” Eve’s error was to ignore the possibility of unforeseen consequences; she did not do a risk assessment.  She didn’t consider if God’s warning was like a “thin ice” sign, to protect her from hidden dangers. By venturing ahead, she, and Adam, gained only the hurtful personal experience of wrongdoing – what we call guilt. In spiritual terms, the temptation was the bully’s ploy to drag better creatures down to its infernal level.

“The Adam and Eve story, when imaginatively contemplated, will be found to be very contemporary, describing the nature and effect of all sin – it separates us from ourselves, from others, from God.”2 The point of it is to teach every generation that God has laid down boundaries for human conduct, and that we are constantly tempted to push our luck and cross those boundaries. Some things can seem good, but are in fact damaging to others if not to ourselves.

For a contemporary parallel much in the news at the time of writing, take the crass commercialism in which landlords charge the “market value” for properties because enough people can afford to rent them, yet many others cannot and are forced into sub-standard or crowded accommodation, or forced out of some areas (such as London) altogether. Maximising profits is a government-sponsored “good” for all businesses not least because it boosts the Gross National Product statistics which are seen as the chief measure of economic success. Yet people on lower incomes often suffer as a result, and the wealth gap widens – which politicians gloss over by appeal to “the figures”. Biblically, welfare is supposed to triumph over wealth. It’s one reason why there were strict rules in ancient Israel about profiteering generally, and about property ownership and leasing.

The threat of death in Genesis 2:17 refers to the spiritual “death” of alienation from God (as described in Isaiah 59:2). It would seem that the cunning serpent getting inside Eve’s head twisted this to make it appear to her to refer to physical death in 3:4,5, which the fruit-eating snake had apparently avoided.

But why should we suffer?

Paul in the New Testament claims that the whole human race “died” as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. It seems unfair that the race should suffer alienation from God because of the failure of its first representatives. But Paul qualifies his assertion: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Even the Old Testament recognised that “there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). James in the New Testament rules out any buck-passing or blaming others for our own mistakes: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (1:13)

The geneticist and broadcaster Robert Winston sheds an interesting ray of light on “original sin” (the inherited bias away from God). He suggests that, for example, “cheaters develop strategies that successfully mask their dishonesty from other members of the group [and] these abilities would tend to enter the gene pool – ensuring that every group has a convincing liar within it.”3

Learned behaviours and attitudes are easily passed across groups of people and from one generation to another. We quickly become used to living without reference to God (the basic biblical definition of “sin”) and the habit is catching, like a virus in the community. Western culture is now officially agnostic; God is a matter of private concern not public interest; behavioural standards are not a matter of divine revelation but of public acceptability.  

We can’t blame Adam and Eve for our imperfection and our inherent alienation from God because in their shoes we probably would have acted as they did, and in any case have done so in different circumstances since birth. Humans are inherently self-centred, not God-centred. We can overcome temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13) but we remain vulnerable to misjudgement and hasty words and actions.

The story of Adam and Eve, placed at the start of the biblical narrative, introduces us to a simple fact: human waywardness alienates us from God and we’re all infected by it. The rest of the Bible describes how slowly God sought to remedy the situation, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Think and talk

1.  Look up the references cited in the text and mull or talk them over.
2.  See how Paul uses the contrast between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. What are the key points he is making with regard to the human spiritual condition?
3.  “Truly to be man is man aware of thee and unafraid to be”: how true do you think this is and how might it affect the way you live and think?
4.  Do you ever stop to ask if God might be “saying” something through animals, events, scenes, circumstances, other people? Take time out to meditate regularly on such things instead of rushing from one experience or engagement to the next.

1.  David Gascoyne, “Fragments towards a religio poetae” in Collected Poems, Oxford University Press 1965, and quoted in Ruth Etchells, Unafraid to be, IVP 1969, p. 95.
2.  Gerard Hughes, God of surprises, Darton, Longman and Todd 1988, p. 88.
3.  Robert Winston, The human mind, Bantam Press 2003, p. 298.


Friday, 7 July 2017

Goldilocks meets Genesis 1

Folded rocks at Hartland Quay, Devon,
suggest that the “creation” of today’s landscape
occurred over long periods of geophysical activity.
No matter what your parents, or anyone else, told you, you are not an accident. That is all you need to remember if the arguments and assertions about Genesis 1 confuse you. Because that is the heart of the biblical teaching about creation. However, it needs some unpacking first.

The account of creation in Genesis 1 remains problematic for many people (and is exacerbated because Genesis 2 appears to offer an alternative narrative). We can be caught between two extremes: a literal six-day “creationism” and the assertion that “science” relegates Genesis to the level of myth (at best) with no relevance to today’s world. The debate among Christians can go further and lead to sometimes bitter and even divisive arguments about biblical inspiration and authority.

However some misunderstandings arise simply because we assume biblical writers are saying things which they never intended. So before we examine what Genesis 1 does (and does not) say, we need to note that Hebrew (biblical) literature in general stems from a way of thinking that is completely different to ours.

Evocation not explanation

The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who ought to know how the Hebrew mind works, has written that “when the Hebrew Bible wants to explain something, it does not articulate a theory. It tells a story.”1 He points out that western ways of thinking (especially since the 17th century) owe much to the Greek mindset that analysed and speculated.

By contrast, Hebrew writers evoke images rather than offer explanations; they assert but rarely analyse. For example, when Hebrew people looked at nature, they didn’t try to work out why it was the way it was; they simply saw in it a reflection of God’s character, and let that inspire their worship and inform their theology.

Or take the age-old problem of innocent suffering: it is never addressed as a philosophical issue on the Bible, and no “answers” to it are offered. Instead we see the unfortunate Job wrestling with simplistic, inadequate and downright false “answers” to his plight. He ends up none the wiser except to realise that God is bigger than he thought. Elsewhere, the Bible reassures us that God is always present to support us, if not always to remedy our ills, whatever the circumstances.

The same is true in the New Testament. Its authors were mostly Jews steeped in Hebrew ways of thinking, even though the earliest documents were written in the Greek language. Paul, for example, uses a number of word-pictures to describe the purpose and effect of Jesus’ death on the cross. These include a sacrifice of atonement, an example, redemption or ransom, reconciliation, rescue from evil, and rendering the old Mosaic law redundant. But Paul never discusses how these relate to each other. Like a well-cut diamond, New Testament statements about Christ’s death flash different facets of truth when seen from different angles. It was later theologians who tried (with mixed success) to fuse the images into a coherent theory.

The pre-Christian Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle both influenced the thinking of Christian leaders from early times. Their perspective in turn formed a basis for the “Enlightenment” of the 17th century from which sprang today’s “scientific” outlook, which focuses more on fact than on meaning. And that led many Christians to assume, wrongly, that Genesis 1 was a factual account of how the universe came into being.

However, one of the most influential theologians of the early church, Augustine of Hippo, had rejected this possibility as early as the fifth century AD. Sadly, his strictures were forgotten even though in other matters his systematic exposition of biblical teaching laid a foundation for much of the theology which has shaped the church ever since.   

In a detailed exposition of Genesis, Augustine claimed that Genesis 1 was not to be taken literally. He upbraided Christians for talking nonsense about what was known in his day (which was far less than what is known now) concerning the motions of the planets and the events of the natural world. He even – long before the idea of evolution was conceived – suggested from his reading of Scripture that God built in to the universe the capacity for continuous development and change (which of course we observe in small ways to the present day).2

Theology not science

Genesis 1 sets the scene for the entire biblical narrative. It is theology, never intended by the original author to be read as science or history, but intended instead to answer the question (which has been repeated by philosophers and scientists ever since): why is there something rather than nothing? It’s primarily about God.

First, it tells us that God is greater than the universe, and existed before it came into being. He stands outside the universe. He is not trapped or enclosed by it, yet is present everywhere within it. Interestingly, Augustine pointed out what now is generally accepted, that time as we know it only began when the universe was formed (cue debate about the nature of “eternity”). The first message of Genesis is that God is a powerful and resourceful creator of all things. It’s a reminder that “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Secondly, it tells us that the universe had a definite beginning. Many people (theologians included) down to the 20th century believed in a “steady state” universe that, like God, had always existed (reducing the creation account in Genesis to relate to the Earth alone). Current understanding, based on astronomical observations, physics and maths is that there was a “Big Bang” when the universe as it now is3 came into existence. The fact that this matches Genesis is interesting but no more; the agreement is not “proof” of anything. The point is that the creation was not a chance or accidental event, but was deliberately instigated by God. Genesis is hinting that therefore there is a meaning and purpose to the universe.

Thirdly, it reveals that God is orderly and systematic. Creation was carefully planned and guided, stage by stage. This is the purpose of the narrative’s use of “days”. They have been variously interpreted as (a) literal 24-hour periods of creation; (b) long unspecified eras (as in Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8); and (c) a vision revealed to the author over a series of days (or nights). But the imagery they evoke is of natural, logical and above all unhurried progress. Current understanding suggests that huge swathes of time are required for physical and chemical processes to develop the conditions required for life to flourish.

Elsewhere in scripture, we discover that God remains closely involved with his creation. He is “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3); in him “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Not only does this allow for the ongoing physical “creation” processes (volcanism, erosion, earth movements, and so on). It also reminds us that God does not act in capricious or arbitrary ways. Civilisation depends on the continuing regularity and reliability of physical, biological and chemical processes. (Disrupting that order by human intervention is fraught with danger, as the current debate about climate change suggests.)

Fourthly, Genesis 1 tells us that the universe was made with people in mind. They were created when everything else was ready. They were the last to appear in the Genesis account. Scientists today talk of the “Goldilocks Principle”: the finely-tuned structures of the sun and solar system are “just right” for human life to exist on Earth4. A bit nearer the sun (like Venus) and we’d fry. A bit further away (like Mars) and we’d freeze. If the gravity of the sun and the rate at which hydrogen is converted into helium (which produces the sun’s heat) varied even by a tiny fraction, there would not have been enough time for life to develop and thrive on Earth.

Furthermore, Genesis 1 claims that human beings were given a purpose: to develop the earth’s potential and create a God-centred community (known as the “creation mandate”). That is the meaning (sadly misinterpreted at various times in history) of the words “rule over” or “have dominion over” used in some English translations. The calling is to care for, not to exploit, God’s Earth, to treat with respect a physical order crafted by God for good reason.

And finally, Genesis 1 tells us that God created human beings “in his image”. At the very least, the author is suggesting that people alone have the conscious ability to relate to God in a personal way. The ramifications are endless. Later biblical assertions about God’s character (loving, caring, just, righteous and so on) remind us that having been made in God’s image we are meant to reflect God’s nature in our relationships. Violence (physical and verbal) and exploitation or taking advantage of people weaker and more vulnerable than others fail to do that. Darwin’s concept of the “survival of the fittest” in the biological world, a tautology that is often misconstrued, is not God’s rule for human conduct.

Looked at like this, the story of God that Genesis 1 tells is timeless. That itself helps to reinforce the belief that the Bible, rightly interpreted in its original context, is God’s inspired Word for all time. It does not offer an opinion or angle on what different generations discover. It explores the truths that lie behind any facts we might uncover.

Humility not arrogance

By reading Genesis 1 as theology and nothing else, the controversies melt into insignificance. And it is important and instructive to note the comments of some who do not believe that their disciplines give them a right to pronounce on theological or philosophical matters, whatever their personal beliefs.

So TV presenter Prof. Brian Cox writes that science cannot (and should not) answer questions about God. “Science is concerned with answering more modest questions, and that is the reason for its power and success. The goal of science is to explain the observed features of the natural world … This is a humble idea; there is no a priori aim to discover the reason for the existence of our universe or to build theories of everything.”5

Another TV presenter and scientist, Jim Al-Khalili, was quoted in an interview that he was mystified why the physics of the universe speak the very precise language of mathematics. “For me, not having an answer, not knowing, is fine. I would like to think I will find the answers. [Who knows] whether I will turn to religion later in life or have some epiphany?”6

Almost the final word can be left to Jonathan Sacks’ succinct summary of the different objectives of religion and science: “Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down into their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. ... Science sees the underlying order of the physical world. Religion hears the music beneath the noise. Science is the conquest of ignorance. Religion is the redemption of solitude.”7

Which brings us back to where we started. We are not accidental landings on the roulette wheel of physics. We are not orphans in a limitless void which has no meaning or purpose. Human life on Earth, almost certainly a very rare, if not unique, development in the universe, was planned and executed by a God who is both beyond it yet also imminent within it. The rest of the Bible expounds the reason why, and the responsibilities such an amazing revelation imposes on communities and individuals.

Think and talk

1.  Read how Psalms 8 and 104 celebrate creation without explaining it. Use them for your own meditation and worship.
2.  God’s ongoing creative sustaining of the physical order: Genesis 8:22; Isaiah 40: 225-26; 42:5-9; Acts 17:24-28; Hebrews 1:3.
3.  God’s care for what he made: Matthew 10:29-31.

1. Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, Hodder & Stoughton 2011, p. 44.
2. There are references to Augustine’s important correctives in several modern Christian books by authors who are both scientists and Christians who also respect the integrity of the Bible. These include Rodney Holder, Big Bang Big God (Lion 2013) and Alister McGrath, Inventing the Universe, Hodder & Stoughton 2015.
3. Currently, a number of physicists believe, on mathematical grounds, that there have been previous universes or that there may be a number of “multiverses” existing at the same time.
4.  In case any reader is not familiar with the children’s story, Goldilocks found three bowls of porridge in the bears’ house: one was too cold, one was too hot, but one was just right.
5.  Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen, Human Universe, William Collins 2015, p.169.
6.  Interview published in Christianity magazine, December 2015.
7.  Jonathan Sacks, op.cit. pp.6-7.

Future posts will explore other issues from the early chapters of Genesis.

© Derek Williams 2017